"Otis, he's sort of like a teenage girl's wet dream," said Laurie Nunn, creator of Netflix's coming-of-age dramedy Sex Education. Played by 21-year-old Asa Butterfield, Otis is, in fact, a very singular character on a very singular show. The son of a divorced sex therapist (played by Gillian! Anderson!), Otis is possibly one of the few teenage boys in the world who can't orgasm when they try to masturbate. But despite his lack of experience, both with others and himself, Otis ends up becoming his high school peers' go-to source for sexpertise. At first, it's simply because he has his mother's therapy tools to crib from. But after some disastrous false starts, Otis' underground therapy clinic takes off in an unexpected way because of the sensitivity, compassion and open-mindedness with which he approaches his peers. Lo and behold, a relatively safe, welcoming space created by a non-judgmental teenage boy. If that sounds like a bit of wild fantasy, that's because it is. "He's definitely a male character who was written by a writers room full of women," said Nunn, pointing out the delicious dichotomy that will make Sex Education a future classic.
In a genre that's often defined by authenticity, it's Sex Education's willingness to dabble in light flights of fantasy that makes it a stand out. "So many teenagers like to...see themselves reflected, but somewhere where the stories usually turn out okay in the end," said Nunn. Growing up an "awkward, nerdy" teen herself, Nunn reminisced about the teen TV shows, movies and YA books that got her through difficult bouts of bullying. Citing classics like 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed, My So-Called Life, Nunn honed in on her platonic ideal of teen stories: "We were always treading that line of wanting the show to be funny, lighthearted and warm, but also wanting to not shy away from those more difficult conversations."
Sex Education masterfully blends the two. Nunn and her creative team dive right into modern plagues that ail a hyper-connected generation of teens; from revenge porn to consent issues to parental abuse and abandonment to even suicide, Sex Education unflinchingly acknowledges that teens deal with concerns most adults still can't handle. One of the darkest moments of the series happens after Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Otis' best friend, is physically assaulted because he's dressed in drag and doesn't indulge the homophobic taunts of some random passersby. Thoroughly shaken by the violence, Eric finally heeds his immigrant father's advice to live quietly by butching it up in a way that transforms him completely. Despite the fact that everyone in his small town knows he's gay, everything about Eric that even remotely alludes to that fact is abruptly thrust back in the closet. Only after briefly glimpsing a look at the kind of man he could grow into if he stops stifling himself does Eric decide he's willing to pay whatever price the world demands to just be seen for who he is. With a face that's beat for the gods and a batik print suit plus gele combo paired with his sister's heels, Eric subtly announces to his worried family that yes, he will be attending the school dance, and no, he doesn't give a damn what people say about him.
What happens next is every queer immigrant kid's dream. Eric's father, who has spent his entire life fearing for his gay son when there's already so much that marks them outsiders in a strange land, recognizes that there's a time to be brave. In an incredibly cathartic scene for anyone's who has come out to unsupportive family members, he drives Eric to the dance and apologizes for trying to change his son.
"Sophie Goodhart wrote that episode and it makes me cry every time," said Nunn. "There's a bit of wish fulfillment in there because quite often, people have to wait until they're a bit older before they have that kind of real adult human connection with their parent or [vice versa]." By speeding up that real-world timeline and choosing the most optimistic endgame — a father and son separated by countries, cultures, and generations finding strength and support in their differences — Sex Education cuts the cruelty of real life with a fantasy that's feels (and if you're lucky, is) attainable.
Although not every problem is neatly solved and not everyone gets a happy ending, Sex Education errs on the sunny side. Every moment of kindness where one character reaches out to another — Otis taking Maeve (Emma Makey) home from the abortion clinic, Anwar (Chaneil Kular) pointing out Eric's type, Olivia (Simone Ashley) claiming the leaked nude as hers instead of Ruby's (Mimi Keene), Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) confessing his feelings to Jean (Anderson) — is a reminder that there's people and experiences out there worth struggling through an increasingly hostile and segregated world for.
"That's at the core of the show," said Nunn. "Nobody really knows what they're doing! You've got to always be open and honest. You've got to at least try and communicate with the people around you to have those healthy, worthwhile relationships, whether it's romantic or friendships or parent-child relationships."
After all, as Nunn pointed out, "We've all wanted to sniff someone." With a chuckle she went on, "It doesn't matter whether you're in your forties or sixteen. If you fall in love you're still gonna act like a teenager." With all that awkwardness and insecurity in common, it suddenly feels just a little easier to be kind.
Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix.