Sex Education review: Netflix delivers a bingeable comedy sourced from the hormonal chaos of adolescent hell

Prahlad Srihari

Jan 15, 2019 09:00:23 IST

Coupling Superbad's raunch with The Breakfast Club's heart, Netflix delivers a bingeable comedy drama sourced from the hormonal chaos of adolescent hell. Sex Education, the streaming giant's new eight-part series from Laurie Nunn, is like a fan letter from Britain to America with love and an excess dosage of Viagra.

Netflix's Sex Education is hilariously irreverent yet painfully insightful. Netflix

Netflix's Sex Education is hilariously irreverent yet painfully insightful. Netflix

With its authoritarian headmasters, detentions, prom dances, bitchy cliques, horny nerds, jocks and varsity jackets, you might think you're actually watching an '80s American teen comedy. But this is not an homage to Animal House, American Pie or Porky's. There are no elaborate "Let's Get Laid" quests or gloats about sexual conquests. These teenage characters are not objectified or patronised.

This Netflix teen comedy unravels the complex life of adolescents — with all their insecurities, anxieties and impulses — in the tradition of the films of John Hughes, the man who legitimised the genre. It takes his trope-y yet sensitive examination of the American high school experience and turns it into something fresh, empowering and sex-positive — with that characteristic British charm and sensibility.

Its brazen depiction of sex and its bawdy humour might make some squirm between the laughs. But there's a refreshing honesty and forthrightness to Sex Education that is likely to strike a chord with both teens and adults.

Asa Butterfield's Otis learns to deal with an incredibly intrusive mother, played by Gillian Anderson. Netflix

Teenaged Otis (Asa Butterfield) has an extensive knowledge about human sexuality despite being a virgin — thanks to his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson). Netflix

But do excuse its utterly absurd plot. Sex Education follows Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), the sexually repressed teenaged son of Jean (Gillian Anderson), a sex and relationship therapist with no sense of boundaries whatsoever. After he successfully mitigates a delicate situation involving a classmate going through an embarrassingly hard problem (let's just say he's experiencing a bad Viagra trip), the school's resident feminist, punk pariah and all-round badass Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) convinces him to start an underground sex therapy clinic to counsel their horny, hormonal peers. So, Otis uses the second hand knowledge gained by living with his oversharing mother to help his fellow high-schoolers through their sexual dysfunctions — and, in the process, solves the mystery to his own.

Sure, like self-conscious teenagers would willingly go discuss their endocrinological quandaries and sexual concerns with their classmate! While the show's storyline may not be realistic, its issues are very much real — from the mythology surrounding penis size to the unrealistic expectations about sex perpetuated by pornography. It also takes a particularly nuanced and nonjudgmental approach to explore topics like sexual identity, slut-shaming, body image, abortion and homophobia.

Sex Education aspires for an honest communication of some veritably sticky situations that adolescents all over the world often find themselves in. Otis is like Moordale Secondary School's very own Veronica Mars — only more shrink, less sleuth, solving problems more coital than criminal. The Netflix series also follows a hybrid procedural-serialised format like the cult teen noir series featuring Kristen Bell.

Otis counsels his high-school peers on their sexual problems. Netflix

Otis counsels his high-school peers on their sexual problems. Netflix

However, in its love and adulation for American teen dramas, the British dramedy suffers from an identity crisis of sorts. Virtually, all of its pop culture references are essentially American — as characters namedrop everyone from Kinsey to Kim K and discuss the romantic dramas of Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson. Even Virginia Woolf is referred to as "the Beyoncé of her time". But the characters' accents and slang are unequivocally British.

It often feels like the show is either taking place in some alternate universe or is stuck between two time periods as the setting seems intentionally ill-defined. The teenagers' wardrobes, the house interiors, the social dynamics and the soundtrack suggest a heavy influence of the late '70s and '80s — the peak of the American teen comedy genre. The contemporary references, however, suggest it could be set in a more recent time period.

Interestingly, smartphones and social media don't feature all that heavily in the plotlines either. These palpable contradictions can make Sex Education a jarring binge-watching experience for some.

Smartphones don't feature all that heavily in the plotlines for a comedy, seemingly set in the contemporary era. Netflix

Smartphones or social media don't feature all that heavily in the plotlines for a comedy seemingly set in the contemporary era. Netflix

The series could also have benefited from a shorter, crisper episode length of around 30 minutes, like 2017's sleeper hit The End of the F***ing World. Often, there are one too many issues/subplots packed into a single episode, which could perhaps have been explored in another standalone episode.

Sex Education features a cast comprising mostly little to unknown actors, barring Anderson and Butterfield — who have come a long way since their Agent Scully and Hugo Cabret days. But it's these unfamilar names who leave a lasting impression. Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong, Otis' best friend, and Kedar Williams-Stirling as Jackson Marchetti, a swimming champion and Maeve's boyfriend, may embody certain gay and jock stereotypes respectively. But they are not just defined by their sexuality and archetype or used primarily as plot devices.

However, the success — and best moments of — Sex Education's debut season belongs to breakout star Emma Mackey, whose purple-haired, punk outcast Maeve is one of the most compelling female characters in recent TV/streaming history. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, she is dark-humoured and broken, and like BoJack Horseman's Diane Nguyen, she is unapologetically frank and painfully relatable. And it will be exciting to see how her character is developed in future seasons.

Emma Mackey's Maeve is undoubtedly the standout character from the debut season of Sex Education. Netflix

Emma Mackey's Maeve is undoubtedly the standout character from the debut season of Sex Education. Netflix

These relatable characters — with complex backstories — are what separates Sex Education from most other teen sex comedies. The show's writers display a sincere regard for the teenage experience, acknowledging all the awkward and discomfiting eventualities that come with it. From the preposterous plot synopsis offered by Netflix, you may go into Sex Education expecting a hilariously irreverent teen sex comedy but you will surely walk away with something far more insightful — and painfully beautiful.

Sex Education is not just another notable web series in the Netflix catalogue, it's also a highly worthy entry into the teen sex comedy canon.

Rating: ★★★✫✫

Creator: Laurie Nunn

Cast: Gillian Anderson, Asa Butterfield, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, Connor Swindells, Kedar Williams-Stirling

Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix.

Updated Date: Jan 15, 2019 09:00:23 IST