Review: Sex Education on Netflix

Review: Sex Education on Netflix

by Alan Grant
article from Wednesday 16, January, 2019

A TV SHOW can succeed for any number of reasons but it never helps to have an interesting premise. Sex Education, Netflix’s attempt to keep the ball rolling on its stellar line of in-house productions, is an example of a show that takes this leg up (over?) and runs with it. A comedy-drama set in a British high school, with a distinctly American twist and which seems to quantum leap at will between 1979 and the current year, Sex Education follows the adventures of a teenage sex therapist, whose mother is also a sex therapist, as he dispenses advice to his school mates while dealing with his own issues.

Intriguing, right?

It’s essentially what would happen if Grange Hill and Skinz were caught round the back of the bike sheds at an American Hogwarts whose attendees spent quite a bit of time flicking between Mean Girls and Glee… and it’s as good as that sounds.

On top of the novel premise of a teenage sex advisor who finds it difficult to touch himself (no you didn’t misread that!), Sex Education scratches the critical itch on a number of levels. 

First, it’s a stunning watch. The camerawork is fantastic, the colour palette helps set the mood of almost every scene without being obtrusive, and the set design manages to reflect the discomfort and malaise of being a teenager perfectly. In keeping the exact timescale (1980s cars appear alongside smartphones) vague but also very stylised, Sex Education keeps its look at once chic, relatable, and cutting edge. Its artistic director deserves all the recognition that they have coming their way.

The writing is also whip-smart; avoiding the tendency of shows with a distinctly adolescent sensibility have of coming across as a preppy and irritating older sibling or being unnecessarily angsty. Difficult issues, including abortion, masturbation, ‘revenge porn’, gender, sexuality, race, and religion, are confronted in a mature but still nevertheless fun way.

Laurie Nunn’s writing, alongside expert production and cinematography from Jon Jennings, Jamie Cairney, and Oli Russell, never misses the chance to give our characters something interesting, engaging, provocative, or challenging to do and also keeps the stakes realistic while still being able to hike up the tension when needed. Almost all the jokes land, the emotional moments are touching, the triumphs are emphatic and the whole thing flows extremely well. Even the odd awkward clash between its Americana stylings and British population (most notably a slightly cringey moment where a Brit talks about a “hatchet”) go relatively unpunished – such is the strength of the writing.

However, even excellent writing – and Sex Education is written excellently – can only go so far. Without the right cast, even the best screenplay can’t work; luckily, Sex Education’s cast works like they’re all after promotion. 

Asa Butterfield, who plays our teenage sex therapist protagonist Otis Milburn, absolutely smashes it – bringing a nervous energy, hang-dog pessimism, and dithering charm to a really difficult role that could have come across as cold and icy with a less talented actor. Emma Mackey, who plays Maeve Wiley, Otis’ troubled partner in the sex advice clinic, does an excellent job of highlighting the conflict, confidence, and cleverness at the heart of her essentially “bad girl” character – without ever becoming cliché, trite, or unlikeable. Both Ncuti Gatwa and Chaneli Kular offer great support as the two openly gay characters in the show, enjoying tropes without being cartoons, and Connor Swindells clearly has great fun as our jock villain with a secret. Plus, is there a single actor in the world better at playing a complete and utter bastard of an authority figure than Alistair Petrie?

However, while there isn’t a poor performance in all eight episodes, the standout performance is undoubtably Gillian Anderson as sex therapist Dr Jean F. Milburn (below). She is at once the show’s emotional heart and its kindly authority figure – a great contrast from Petrie’s brutal headmaster – while also being conflicted about what she wants from life. Anderson, who hasn’t been in anything worth watching in several years, shows exactly what she’s capable of with the right material and it is compelling to watch her struggle through anger at her separation, confusion as to how to deal with her teenage son, anxiety over her own sex life, and the expectations placed upon her as an academic, therapist, mother, woman, and lover. It’s a tall order for any actor but Gillian Anderson nails it. She hasn’t been this good since, arguably, the X-Files – it’s great to have her back on form!

Characterisation is perhaps Sex Education’s biggest strength. It would be possible to go on and on – perhaps for several of these columns – about how the relationships are believable, the power dynamics are compelling, and the glimpses of even minor characters lives are well-realised but there isn’t room.

However, no review that praises the characterisation of this excellent programme would be complete without noting just how satisfying it is. Each character that we care about (spoiler: that’s all of them) has a story arc that is well-balanced and neatly resolved while also providing a tantalising jumping-off point for a second series that I will personally lead a riot for if we do not get.

While the development of its characters is Sex Education’s biggest strength – its biggest success lies in the messaging. The show is unabashedly liberal and has a sex-positive, anti-piety, pro-choice, sensibility but… and this is the key to its success… it isn’t preachy or twee about it. It shows us what happens when things go wrong even with the best of intentions and doesn’t shy away from the shortcomings in any of its characters whilst also avoiding cliché and stereotypes. It simply sets out its stall of values at the start, says “this is what we believe”, and then gets on with the plot. Absent is the smug, progressive, Tumbler-style, preaching that has ruined a lot of modern TV and film with otherwise good messaging. It’s truly refreshing.

Here’s a quick acid test for if Sex Education is right for you. There’s a scene outside an abortion clinic where a hypocritical teenage anti-abortion protester finishes spewing obnoxious, half-baked, pro-life rhetoric and immediately suffers an hilarious injury as a result of being cracked in the face by a swing door. If that’s your idea of entertainment then Sex Education should definitely be added to you “to be watched” pile as a matter of urgency. If not, then take the stick out of your bum, and just enjoy it anyway – it’s excellent. 

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