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‘Sex Education:’ Bildungsroman for a sex-positive generation

| Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Otis Milburn, the high school-aged protagonist of the new British Netflix series “Sex Education,” dreads having new friends over to his house. It’s hard to blame the kid. His mother, Dr. Jean Milburn, Ph.D., is a sex therapist, and the Milburn home bears the evidence of her profession: sculptures and paintings of larger-than-life sexual organs, instructional videotapes on sexual anatomy and an aesthetically pleasing selection of pornographic drawings decorate their richly wallpapered farmhouse.

As Otis (Asa Butterfield) navigates his own fraught sexual awakening — or lack thereof — he finds that life with a sex therapist for a mother can be both acutely embarrassing and beneficial. At the suggestion of Maeve, a jaded, entrepreneurial loner (Emma Mackey), the pair begins to sell sex advice to their woefully under-informed peers with Otis imitating the practices his mother has used on him his entire young adult life: “I’m curious as to why you think that,” he says to one of his peers, cocking his head slightly, striking the perfect, empathetic-yet-removed therapist tone.

In his makeshift role, Otis talks his peers through some of the most painstakingly vulnerable moments — an inability to stop masturbating, pubic lice, scissoring, sexual phobias and a spectrum of troubled relationships number among his clients’ concerns — with uncommon empathy and maturity for his age. Otis’ approach, like the approach of directors Kate Herron and Ben Taylor, is overwhelmingly sex-positive, feminist and devoid of judgement — for instance, one episode handles the topic of abortion sensitively and matter-of-factly. The show writers temper this straightforward approach with the acknowledgement that the worlds of sex and relationships can be thorny, nerve-wracking and terrifying for teenagers and adults alike. As the eight episodes of the first season unfold, Otis — played to an exceptionally awkward T by Butterfield — finds himself striving to reassure both himself and others of the normality of their own lives, bodies and feelings.

With Otis, his best friend Eric, his mother Jean and his new business-partner-turned-crush Maeve, “Sex Education” has assembled a host of immensely likable characters, all of whom have three-dimensional storylines that only occasionally intersect with Otis’ own. In one of the most affecting story arcs, Eric, the gay son of a Ghanian-Nigerian household — played brilliantly by Ncuti Gatwa — reckons with his sexuality, homophobia, social insecurity and his religion in a series of episodes that will leave viewers teary-eyed. Gillian Anderson, as Otis’ mother, anchors the show with her frank discussion of sex — she’s not afraid to say almost anything in public, including the phrase “man milk” — and her own journey of self-discovery to better parenthood.

Tender, deep storylines about relationships — parent-child, friend-to-friend, queer, straight, romantic, platonic — are punctuated in the show by spikes of witty dialogue. In one memorable scene, Tanya Reynolds’ quirky character, Lily Iglehart, who fantasizes about elaborate alien sex scenes and wants desperately to lose her virginity, propositions Otis in a fantastically direct manner: “To be clear,” she deadpans, “I don’t want to have sex with you, specifically. Just a human man with a penis.”

In February, Netflix announced that “Sex Education” was renewed for a second season, definitively marking its successful entrance into a growing canon of tween- and teen-centered television shows about lust and romance. Some of these shows have appeared within the past two years: “Big Mouth,” another Netflix show, explores puberty in all its charming, totally gross detail; in the recently-released “PEN15” on Hulu, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play middle-schoolers in the mid-2000’s obsessed with gel pens and first kisses. In “Sex Education,“ viewers might detect echoes of the “The Good Place” in the show’s calm insistence on the importance of interpersonal relationships, intimacy of all varieties and the characters’ many bids for self-improvement. And although there’s lots of raunchy, often downright hilarious sex scenes in the show, it includes less R-rated material than you might expect from a show with “sex” in the title.

Rather, Otis and Eric move through their tumultuous teenaged lives. They bike and walk to school, parties and friends’ houses framed by the scenic backdrop of Wye Valley, the lush hamlet and setting of the show. Spectacular shots of Otis’ picturesque home overlooking the glinting curve of the River Wye, nestled between England and Wales, paired with the directors’ penchant for capturing amber afternoon light streaming through various windows, betray the allure of the show: For all of its discussion of the raw, nitty-gritty of teenagers’ sex lives, the show — like so many other high-school dramedies — is also unattainably beautifully. In the final episodes, the show wraps up a tangle of narrative arcs a bit too predictably. Yet, as much as some of its narratives slip into television clichés, “Sex Education” succeeds because of the warmth of its storytelling and its subversive, inclusive revision of classic high school tropes. Burnished with a new, sex-positive, empathetic sheen, these old stories glow.

  • Show: “Sex Education”
  • Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ncuti Gatwa, Gillian Anderson
  • Favorite episodes: “Episode 7” (includes a high school dance)
  • If you like: “Big Mouth,” “The Good Place,” “Skins”
  • Where to Watch: Netflix
  • Shamrock: 4.5 out of 5
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