Sex Education has exactly the kind of energy I—and I would also argue you—need right now. The whole thing feels a bit like a John Hughes movie, but with far more empathy, humor, and insight. It’s a simultaneously filthy and tender, formulaic and novel look at the lives of teenagers that is always delightful and often hilarious to watch.
Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) has a serious problem, especially for a sixteen-year-old boy. He can’t masturbate. That’s right, even touching his own penis makes him gag in disgust. Why he can’t masturbate is complicated, but some of it relates to the fact that his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) is a sex-positive therapist who works out of an office in their house, often holding workshops about things like orgasms. She “doesn’t do relationships,” but instead has loud sex with a string of somewhat hapless men.
Their house is filled with phalluses, erotic art, dildos, and a Georgia O’Keefe-esque painting of orchids, and Jean is quite happy to speak with Otis, as well as with his friends and acquaintances, about all aspects of sex, even when Otis all but begs her to just not. Early on, in a failed attempt to get his mother to stop worrying, Otis sets a scene in his bedroom to make it appear that he has been masturbating. (Honestly, this show is worth watching just for Gillian Anderson’s perfectly taut portrayal of Jean, with her carefully clipped enunciation, her exquisite belted jumpsuits, and her perfectly coiffed platinum hair. Or just watch for when she’s talking to one of Otis’s classmates and rattles off a gloriously long list of euphemisms for semen, which ends with “man milk.”)
All of this is clearly the perfect set-up for Otis to become the somewhat reluctant secret resource for sex advice for all of the students at Moordale Secondary, the high school in their smallish English town. He stumbles into the gig while helping talk down Adam (Connor Swindells), the class bully and headmaster’s son, who, after getting caught faking an orgasm, has taken several viagra in an effort to prove himself to his girlfriend. While Adam sits disconsolate in a stall of a school bathroom that has been condemned for asbestos, his jeans open to allow room for his erection that is worthy of a circus side-show, Otis encourages him “own his own narrative.” This is a perfect example of the show’s ability to mix over-the-top raunch and gross-out humor with empathy, tenderness, vulnerability, and an understanding of teenage experiences. Their impromptu therapy session is overheard by Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), a whip-smart rebel loner from the wrong side of the tracks (the other kids call her “cockbiter” and spread rumors that she has slept with multiple guys at once) who sees the opportunity to capitalize on their horny and confused classmates by charging for Otis’s expertise. Before he knows it, Otis, who a classmate describes as “non-threatening, like a Care Bear,” is dishing out advice to classmates from all levels of the school’s social strata on everything from scissoring to overcoming a gag reflex to maintaining wild pubic hair.
Moordale is rife with the kinds of highschool archetypes that you would expect. Maeve is having secret sex with Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling), a letter-jacket-wearing jock (hang on, we’ll come back to that jacket). There are a group of wealthy students called the “Untouchables,” who are stuck-up and beyond mean and yet everyone still wants an invitation to their parties. There are freaks and geeks—like Lily Inglehart (Tanya Reynolds) who draws tentacle-porn graphic novels and is desperate to lose her virginity to anyone with a penis—and there are awkward teachers trying far too hard to be cool. (Trust me, you will want to see the part where Lily dances suggestively to Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” while wearing a cotton floral bra and pink overalls with the bib undone. As she shimmies, she pulls strip of foil wrapped condoms out of her bright yellow fanny pack. I love Lily and her willingness to just be weird!)
But, and this should really be a BUT, what’s different is that all those kids’ coming-of-age stories (and eventually, in Season Two, even the teachers’ stories) sprawl out in a web of hormonally-fueled plotlines that have depth and substance. Like Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Otis’s openly gay and effusively dressed best friend, who is the eldest son of deeply conservative, religious, and loving Ghanian immigrants. In the first episode, I worried Eric would be slotted into the role of black-best-friend—a one dimensional caricature whose sole purpose is to support the main character and offer comic relief—but Eric is very much Otis’s equal, with his own story about reconciling himself and his family’s expectations, among other exploits that I will not spoil for you. Together they share a deep friendship based on love, vulnerability, and playing a lot of Super Smash Bros. I also love Eric for his glorious laugh and for when he shuts Otis down by telling him things like, “Well, at least I can touch my own penis.”
Or take Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood), a buck-toothed, not-so-bright, naive girl who is secretly Maeve’s friend, but who is also desperate to maintain her status among the popular Untouchables. She is flat-out hilarious, but also has her own story of self-discovery and a sexual awakening of epic proportions. “I’ve been wanking all night. I ate four packets of crumpets, and I think my clit might fall off,” she tells Otis at one point. I also adore Aimee.
The sexual exploits and difficulties of the teenagers, while often presented in humorous scenarios, are never played for cheap thrills. They are awkward, and they can even make you cringe, but this is because they are also truthful and sympathetic depictions. Things like consent, emotional readiness, sexism, homophobia, abortion, self-pleasure, self-acceptance, and feminism all feature prominently in the plotlines, along with some very heartfelt and well-drawn love triangles. The show’s creator, Laurie Nunn, said that she and the largely female group of writers developed these kinds of universal themes based on what they wished had been discussed when they were in high school. (They also employ an intimacy coach to make sure everyone is comfortable in the uncomfortable sex scenes.) And armed with that, they created the coming-of-age dreamscape that is Sex Education.
The world of Sex Education is in its own parallel universe where the laws of time and space are gently bent and twisted. The small town of Moordale, which is extremely diverse, is—based on accents, slang, multiple mentions of A-levels—clearly British (the series was filmed in Wales). However, the presence of letterman jackets and hall lockers, along with the absence of uniforms also give it an American feel. (The show’s creators have planted several homages to their favorite American teenage movies, a lot of which I missed, but I did compare it to John Hughes, so points to me for that. Not that we’re keeping points.) Everyone has a smartphone—a photo of a girl’s vagina is texted to every student in the school, which is a kind of technological wizardry that makes my blood run cold. Why would you ever give any student the ability to text an entire student body at once?—but the clothing styles, the colors, the home decor, and the soundtrack trend more toward the 80s (and sometimes other decades as well), giving the entire show a familiarly unfamiliar and timeless feel.
All of this was, obviously, very purposeful to create a sort of magical teenage realm, free from the constraints of nationality or era. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a utopia, because, as this show makes abundantly clear, absolutely nothing about being a teenager is close to utopian, but Moordale is definitely an alternate reality I’m thrilled I get to visit.