When director Ben Taylor and production designer Samantha Harley needed a catchphrase to sum up the look of Netflix's Sex Education, they landed on a touchstone as colorful and offbeat as the show itself: "sexy municipal."
It's impossible to miss the bold aesthetic of Sex Education, which tells the story of Otis (Asa Butterfield), a teenage boy with a sex therapist mother (Gillian Anderson) who puts his knowledge to good use by helping his peers through their sex and relationship woes. Filmed in a lush, scenic town in Wales, with most of its action taking place at a school that looks like Riverdale and sounds like Skins, the series seamlessly juxtaposes influences that would clash on most shows: British and American, contemporary and nostalgic, "sexy" and "municipal."
"Municipal buildings in the States -- I'm sure you guys don't see it because you're so used to it -- but they have a sexiness because of old design and old block colors and symmetry," Taylor told TV Guide. The director, who helmed the first half of the season, was particularly inspired by the schools in '80s John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, with their "rows of lockers and water fountains but with a heightened sense of design and controlled palette." Speaking of schools in the U.K., Taylor said, "We just don't have anything that looks as cool as that."
If Americans picturing their own high schools are skeptical at that claim, consider that this may be part of the point: The series excels at finding unexpected vibrancy in the midst of vulgarity. Sex Education deals frankly with everything from traditional coming-of-age fare -- crushes, masturbation, the clumsiness of a new sexual relationship -- to heavier material like homophobia, abuse, and abortion. The show isn't afraid to get graphic. But it's just as often prone to flights of fancy, as with Otis' classmate Lily (Tanya Reynolds), who immerses herself in drawing sci-fi comics that play out sexual fantasies she hasn't yet experienced. Sex Education refuses to deny its young characters the right to their imaginations.
"We wanted to build a world conducive to falling in love and lust, unrequited crushes, snogging, and hand jobs -- slightly heightened, long summer days, verdant hills, train bridges over rivers, sensory overload," Taylor explained. As stylistic influences, he cited the "sensual" atmosphere of Call Me By Your Name, the retro-cool photo shoots of British Vogue fashion director Venetia Scott, and Steven Spielberg's gift for evoking "how childhood felt." But it was John Hughes who came up the most, not simply because Taylor was drawn to the vibe of his films, but because his storytelling allowed for joy and optimism in the midst of teenage angst.
Taylor saw those same elements in series creator Laurie Nunn's scripts. "If you're into a design, if you're into something '80s or American, you're always worried to shoehorn it into a show if the material can't take it," he said. "But for me, it was the fact that Laurie had written joyful characters, and optimism, and warmth, and proper friendships and proper love. It could take that American aesthetic and wear it well, because I think the world that Otis and his friends exist in is heightened. It's beautiful and brilliant. You wish that all teenagers were as intelligent and confident and articulate as these characters."
A key to the show's philosophy is Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Otis' best friend, whose storyline emerges as the highlight of the first season. One of only two out gay students at school, Eric tamps down his naturally fabulous fashion sense after he is assaulted while wearing drag. "The contradiction with Eric is that he's the most outwardly confident," Taylor said. "He's loud in all senses of the word. And then you realize as the series goes on he's probably the one who's actually struggling the most with it." Eric's hope for his own future is reawakened by an unlikely set of back-to-back experiences: After meeting a middle-aged man with a fierce sense of style, he takes a rare trip to church with his devoutly religious family. Inspired by a sermon about self-love -- and the sight of church ladies in their gele -- Eric shows up at the school dance in a show-stopping outfit that pays homage to his Ghanaian and Nigerian roots. He even manages to find common ground with his father in the process.
The message of Eric's story is a powerful one for gay teens, particularly those from immigrant families: His sexuality isn't a rejection of his background but an extension of it. For Eric, the way he dresses is intertwined with his love for himself and his community. On Sex Education, costuming is a way of dramatizing how comfortable each character is in their own skin. Otis, who says he wants nothing more than to disappear into a corner, dresses to attract the least amount of attention possible, spending most of the season in the same coat. "It really becomes his suit of armor," Taylor explained. Meanwhile, popular students at the school wear bright, runway-ready looks that seem pulled from at least three decades at once. Sex Education isn't interested in capturing a moment in realistic teenage fashion. The show is more concerned with using clothing to amplify the feeling of an environment where every choice either telegraphs social status or pushes back against it.
The social hierarchy is even more fraught for teens in the age of social media. On issues of technology, Sex Education dares to have its cake and eat it too, acknowledging how iPhones and the internet shape modern relationships -- both romantic and platonic -- even as it prioritizes face-to-face interaction whenever possible. The series tackles revenge porn, for instance, but resolves it via a display of old-fashioned, hand-holding solidarity. While the goal was never to pretend the show was set in a different era, the creative team consciously minimized how many storylines were reliant on technology. "There's nothing as boring as a shot of somebody on their phone," Taylor said. And when a plotline did require characters to communicate over text, the design team added a hand-crafted touch. "It's very subtle, so most people probably don't see it, but the texts that pop up are actually paper textured, so they still have that tactile, analog feel," Taylor explained. The goal was that "nothing ever felt cold and digital" on screen.
At one level, Sex Education's gently throwback vibe is rooted in practicality. "If we played this totally straight and we played it totally contemporary, I think more questions would be asked about the central premise," Taylor said, "which is: Otis acts as a therapist to his peers in a world where Google exists." But the aesthetic ultimately works to put a megaphone to the message of the show: Genuine human connection is a balm for any problem. Relationships can be brutal, but Sex Education's visual playfulness defiantly softens the blow, leaving room for there to still be something sweet about growing up -- at any age.
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining how intimacy coordinators are changing the industry, the underrated importance of MTV's Undressed, the most awkward sex scenes we've ever watched with our parents, and more. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.
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