The Thoughtful Raunch of Sex Education

Netflix’s new series is a graphic teen dramedy with a difference.

Asa Butterfield (Otis) and Gillian Anderson (Jean) in Netflix's 'Sex Education'
Asa Butterfield (Otis) and Gillian Anderson (Jean) in Netflix's Sex Education (Netflix)

The Netflix algorithm is getting stronger. Consider Sex Education, a new British dramedy patched together so perspicaciously from pieces of existing hits that you can virtually see the stitches. Like The End of the F***ing World, it’s a zany teen romance set in a mysterious Anglo-American hinterland that looks like a John Hughes movie but whose cultural references are pure Blighty (Butlin’s, Wotsits, SRE class, getting monged). Like Stranger Things, it’s a tribute to a retro aesthetic of wood paneling and earth tones. And, like Big Mouth, it’s a filthy sex comedy about lovable teenagers running amok in their witless, hormonal, priapic frenzies.

That it works so well is almost annoying. One of the assets of a TV show that’s such a grab bag of miscellaneous elements is that you’re bound to find something to appreciate, whether it’s graphic doodles of genitalia (tip o’ the cap to American Vandal), heartfelt portrayals of teen anxiety, hirsute and strangely sexy Scandinavian handymen, or the moment toward the end of the first episode when Gillian Anderson recites a litany of slangy euphemisms for semen. (Pick your own favorite; mine is “man milk,” delivered with alliterative emphasis.) Never mind that every episode is 20 minutes too long. Push aside the cultural dissonance. Here is a series that pulls off a curious trick: It’s a woke raunch comedy, replete with graphic and humiliating sexual experiences, yet bent on using them in a very sincere way.

Asa Butterfield (Hugo, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) plays Otis, a teenager living in a geographically indistinct community that looks like New England but sounds like an episode of Skins (it was actually filmed in Wales). The bane of his life is that his mother (Anderson) is a sex and relationships therapist who festoons their house with phallic art and warns his school friends about marijuana use leading to early-onset impotence. Otis has a long-burning crush on Maeve (Emma Mackey), an enigmatic rebel living alone in a caravan site (British for trailer park) who wants to use Otis’s parentage for profit: She sees his potential as the school’s sex guru.

Never mind that Otis is a virgin so scarred by his family history that he can’t even masturbate. Moordale High is populated entirely with horny and hopelessly confused students in need of a counselor. Everyone, in the words of Otis’s best friend, Eric, is “either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging,” and is also doing it 21st-century style, with mass texts and dick pics and humiliating gifs. Laurie Nunn, the playwright who created the show, employs old-school archetypes, too: Students are shoved into lockers and robbed of their lunch money, and the hierarchy of who’s cool leans on meanness and money. But Sex Education’s anxieties are modern ones, spanning porn and transphobia and erotic fiction about intergalactic alien sex.

Otis falls almost accidentally into his new hobby when he talks down a bully who’s taken too many Viagra pills and is panicking in an abandoned bathroom stall. Otis’s serene manner and empathetic advice impress Maeve, who starts hawking his time to the school’s more sexually dysfunctional students (which is all of them). Butterfield is winsome and endearingly flappable in portraying Otis’s personal life, but he exudes an odd kind of calm when he’s issuing guidance. His clients call him a “sex savant,” or a “Care Bear,” or a “mum man,” or “that weird sex kid who looks like a Victorian ghost.” But he does help them, in the end.

And, by extension, he helps viewers. Like Big Mouth, Sex Education has all kinds of advice to offer regarding the confusing and impossibly complicated realm of modern sexuality. The show is graphic, gross, and inherently earnest: No matter how mortifying Otis might find his mother, he’s internalized her refusal to judge anyone. Anderson, who most recently has embodied gravitas and aloofness on series including The Fall and War and Peace, seems to revel in the comic potential of her role as Jean, not to mention the opportunity to play a middle-aged woman with an extraordinarily healthy sex life. Jean’s story lines, although not as frequent as they could be, add still more dimensions to the ways in which Sex Education comments on desire.

Is it weird that the best, most nuanced advice about sex and intimacy these days tends to be found on gross-out Netflix shows? Maybe. But it’s also oddly cheering. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings offered all kinds of opportunities to revisit the influence that cultural products such as Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds can have when it comes to adolescent sexual behavior. Sex Education—a show that’s sensitive and sweet-natured and smutty to its core—seems to hint that no matter how bad it looks out there, there’s hope to be had after all.