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Lithium Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ is John Hughes for the socially conscious generation

Jan. 22, 2019
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Sex Education skips the foreplay and opens its pilot with two of its characters just going at it, rattling furniture and messy attempts at dirty talk included. Although staggeringly bold, this comes as no surprise—the series is called Sex Education, after all, and Netflix’s newest entry to its binge subgenre is not the first coming (*wink*)-of-age project to tackle sex as a central theme, or even be the first to open with a sex scene.

That is where its strength lies, however—in its willingness to, in the words of series creator Laurie Nunn, “take tried-and-tested tropes of the genre and sort of flip them on their head.” From the get-go we meet characters we’ve seen before: at the center is nerdy virgin Otis (Asa Butterfield) and his embarrassingly hip, nosy sex therapist mom Jean (Gillian Anderson, who seems to be having the time of her life). As we walk through Moordale Secondary on the first day of school, we are introduced to the gay best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), the wildly intelligent and terrifying myth of a girl, Maeve (Emma Mackey), the overachieving athlete, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), and the classic bully, Adam (Connor Swindells), among others, in what appears to be a British Breakfast Club. This makes for a rocky pilot, sure, with the audience having to sit through introductions to people who seem like cardboard cutouts, in a school that’s a xerox copy of every other high school that’s ever appeared on television, but the show has an instantly recognizable charm. It, as Nunn intended, takes everything about the teen genre and jolts it awake, rewriting decades-old tropes into something that feels fresh, timely, and relevant. 

A major difference between this series and its predecessors is that it was written by a team of entirely female screenwriters, and it shows. When adult (ahem, male) writers create teenage characters, they are often ridiculous, exaggerated, and laughed at, and sure, who can blame them? Adolescence is ridiculous and laughable, and don’t we all laugh at all the antics of our younger, more naive selves? But when you’re a teenager without the gift of hindsight, and you’re watching all these people your age being ridiculed, being laughed at, the nuance of the parody is lost—all you see are teenagers being made fun of. The writers of this show understand that, and so everything the protagonists go through is underlined with a sensitivity, a sense of empathy that is very frequently lost amidst the desire to generate secondhand embarrassment. They understand the vulnerable invincibility of teenagers, and, as Alex Abad-Santos of Vox put it, “[They take] all those emotions seriously and [don’t] discount them just because they happen in the brains, loins, and hearts of 17-year-olds.”

The humor works not because it makes fun of teenagers’ hormonal ideations, but because it merely mirrors how we behave. The dialogue shares the same sharpness, wit, and absurdity of real-life conversations between teens (“I wish I was a normal kid, with a normal dick, and a normal dad”), and the sex scenes are funny not because they are played off as jokes, but because teen sex is funny, and messy, and worth laughing about. You are laughing with the characters, not at them. 

One thing that bothered me when the trailer for this came out was that, despite the very diverse teen cast, the main protagonist remains a straight, white male. This was resolved early on in the series, however, when I realized a couple episodes in that this is an ensemble piece, and Otis is as much of a spectator on the lives of his peers as us. There is not a single wasted minute in Sex Education—every subplot is woven intricately into the whole picture, and each character is given time to develop a fully-fleshed arc. Throughout the eight episodes, who I initially thought of as cardboard characters were humanized, made complex—they became people I recognized and grew to love, whose stories I knew and laughed at and cried about. You’re bound to see yourself in one of the Moordale students, and the writers know this, so they treat each and every one of them with careful attention and tenderness. 

It is this heavy reliance on subplots which enables the show to tackle issues that are very often tiptoed around—lesbian sex! Fragile masculinity! Violence against LGBT people! Abortion! Slut-shaming! Female masturbation! Sexual repression! Sex Education looks its audience in the eye, calls all of these issues by name, and speaks about them truthfully and candidly. The main message of the show, therefore, is not so much told as it is practically screamed: some teens want to have sex! And that’s okay!

Its tendency to discuss these hard-hitting themes doesn’t subtract from its charm, however. It is still very much a comedy, and not once does it feel preachy or melodramatic. Its subversion of outdated tropes need not be always hugely revolutionary, but simply more conscious (“Just because he’s the only other gay guy in school doesn’t mean you have to fancy him.” “Correction: only other gay guy that we know of.”). The homages to the ‘80s, according to Nunn, were all deliberate, and they work. They give the show a rhythm which feels signature; formulaic but familiar. There’s just enough saccharine comfort for escapism, but not too much that it becomes intolerably cliche. It’s an easy watch that doesn’t really ask much of you, but you give anyway. 

An already powerful script is made even stronger by its cast. Anderson evidently has a lot of fun as the platinum-haired enigmatic mom, and Butterfield possesses an undemanding magnetism that glues you to the screen. The supporting cast of mostly newcomers never falters in making their characters feel authentic and lived-in. Mackey’s Maeve Wiley is portrayed with a defensive sensitivity which makes rooting for her compulsory. A personal favorite, however, is Aimee Lou Wood’s Aimee Gibbs—her comedic timing is impeccable (“He says he can tell I’m being fake.” “Well, are you?” “Yeah, I’m always fake!”).

I think what has ultimately made Sex Education such a surprise hit is its unexpectedly feminist stance; it is unapologetically sex-centric and sex-positive. Its teenage characters speak about sex so normally that when I saw ads for the show as I stepped onto the train of my predominantly Catholic, conservative country, I was completely taken aback. I was never taught to think about sex, let alone talk about it openly, and yet there I was, standing on the LRT-1 looking at a poster that said, in huge block letters, SEX EDUCATION. This show was not made for niche viewership—it follows Netflix’s binge formula, the British school was Americanized to appeal to a wider audience, and it is not exempt from the usual Netflix marketing, as evinced by my little train ride. And yet it doesn’t succumb to the pressure of a mainstream audience. It never holds back from telling you exactly what it thinks, and honestly, any kind of media that is this mainstream but still allows its young protagonists to discuss sex plainly and truthfully without that sliver of shame which has been so ingrained in me and many other teenagers who weren’t even taught about sex is to be applauded. 

But this sex-positive environment did not stop on screen. Kate Herron, one of the directors, told Mashable that they hired an intimacy coordinator to ensure that everyone on set felt comfortable during all the sex scenes. “[We discussed] things like agreeing [where to] touch, but also other things like everyone being on board with what the scene's about," she said. "That's equally just as important for crew as well. No one should have to go home after filming a sex scene and feel like what they've done is something really wrong.” Ita O’Brien, the intimacy coordinator, said the sex scenes were choreographed, similar to how fight scenes are planned. The cast also participated in a day-long intimacy workshop before the start of filming. O’Brien shared, “Actors said to me that [the workshop] was groundbreaking, to have that connection as an opener and a leveler.” 

When asked about how her attitude toward sex influenced the show, series creator Nunn said, “We had a writers' room for the first series and there were about ten people in the room, writers and producers and myself. We just had all these incredible, open conversations about what information we would have like[d] to have seen on TV as teenagers.” Sex Education is Nunn’s love letter to her teenage self as much as it’s her letter to teenagers today. It is revelatory, validating, and the first time I felt completely listened to and understood during this whole nobody-understands-me angsty mess of adolescence. And isn’t that all we want as teenagers? To feel like we’re not alone?