[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Netflix series Sex Education. Read at your own risk!]
I only need to tell you one thing about Sex Education to put it at the top of your binge queue this weekend: Gillian Anderson plays a sexually liberated relationship therapist with a house full of phallic statues. Even though every part of that statement is accurate, leaving it at that wouldn't be giving this delightfully awkward, beautiful show a just review. Yes, Queen Gillian and her wooden penis collection is everything, but this show is still so much more.
Sex Education stars Asa Butterfield as Otis, the son of Anderson's Jean. While his mother's occupation has made him more sexually educated than his high school peers, the openness of the sexual activity in his house has made Otis outwardly awkward in the physical arena. That is until his school's most beautiful outcast, Maeve (Emma Mackey), convinces him to start up his own sex therapy business at school to earn them both a bit of cash. Otis must then figure out how to entangle the complicated and confusing sexual miscalculations of his classmates while also trying to juggle his own slow sexual awakening, burgeoning feelings for Maeve and the all-encompassing embarrassment that is modern-day high school, even in England.
Let's pause just a second to get something I know has been on your mind out of the way; I already Googled it for you, and yes, it is allowed for you to acknowledge that puberty worked out well for Butterfield. He's 21 now (apparently Ender's Game came out longer ago than you think), which makes it only just acceptable to acknowledge, so let's not dwell on it.
While Otis' sexual awakening as an awkward secondary schooler and Maeve's insecurities about having true feelings for someone despite her sexual experience are tropes and storylines that we've seen before, the series' attention to the types of relationships and sexual experiences around the two are what make it refreshingly unique from what we've seen in the past.
The students that Otis advises range in age, race, sexual experience and orientation. While physical gags are abundant to emphasize the awkwardness of teenage sexuality, no one is shamed by Otis for their preferences or problems. He treats each of his clients with respect and honestly tries to help them, and it's important to see various types of young love represented on a level playing field. There's brazenly honest conversations about blowjobs, gag reflexes, female masturbation and various kinks for the sake of actual conversation, not just comedic shock value, though the conversations still remain humorous.
When a young lesbian couple comes to him asking for help spicing up their bedroom routine, Otis has the wisdom to admit when he's out of his depth and goes to do research. Granted, the research was porn, but realistically where do you expect a 17-year old boy to go to find out about lesbian sexual proclivities? The point is that he doesn't fetishize their relationship or the sex lives — he just tries to help. Inevitably, the solution to their lack of chemistry came down to the same principle as everyone else who went to Otis: communication.
The show was even more nuanced with Otis' best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), who not only is allowed to discuss how hard it is to find partners in a school with only one other openly gay male (and they are thankfully not automatically pushed together just because of their matching sexual orientation!), but gets a storyline about how his identity is often targeted for no reason. Gatwa hands in the best performance of the series in Episode 5 when Otis' self-centeredness leaves him abandoned in the city dressed as Hedwig from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The experience doesn't just expose Otis' shortcomings as an ally and friend, but empowers Eric to become more of himself than he's ever been and own his identity even in the face of adversity.
There's only eight episodes in the dramedy's first season but they also manage to deepen a typical bully trope as well. Adam (Connor Swindells) spends most of the series making your favorite characters miserable, but increasing glances at his depressing home life help you truly understand why Adam has grown to hate himself, and how that aggression works its way out on others. By the end of the season, you're not surprised but relieved that he's finally found something that can make him happy, at least for a little while. At the very least, finally being able to orgasm has got to release the stress he's built up from trying to impress his overbearing father.
The shining through line of Sex Education is the dedication to both the physical and emotional messiness of sex. Most importantly, the series enforces that sex is never clean and simple no matter who is engaging in it. Even the seemingly all-knowing Jean is exposed for not having it all together by the end of the first season.
While peace is made on several fronts, happy endings are not abundant at the end of the series, because life — especially teenage life — isn't like the movies. There are no Love, Simon or She's All That grand romantic gestures or crowd-cheering get togethers. You feel nervous and unsure at the end of Sex Education's first run, which is the epitome of being a teenager. The fact that it doesn't contrive itself to force the people we are trained by mainstream media to want together to actually be in a relationship is refreshing and truthful. Not to mention, it gives them something to work with in a Season 2 (and if they don't, that's perfectly okay too). The lack of a beautiful bow on these stories not only makes the audience anxious for more episodes, but rings true to real-life resolutions. It's what makes it the most honest coming-of-age story we've seen on TV in a long time. We only suggest avoiding bananas immediately before and after viewing.
Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix.