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Sex Education - Season 1 - Review

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Netflix’s Sex Education dropped over the weekend, and with an 8 episode season (each ep clocking in at under an hour) the show is a pretty quick binge--more so because it’s an engrossing teen comedy with a heart of gold. Although, the series starts out a bit shaky, almost trying too hard to establish itself as a raunchy, high school sex romp (a la Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Once over that hurdle, the show settles into a more nuanced and introspective adolescent character study (channeling the likes of John Hugh’s beloved movies). Despite the similarities to classic 80’s teen flicks (from the dated interior décor to the students’ retro attire), the show is set in present day. And with a modern backdrop come modern problems (being recorded via smartphone, nude pics going viral), but there are also timeless teenage plights: fitting in, dealing with parents, and of course, sexual discovery.

Sex Education has several aspects working for it, first and foremost the creative premise. From the pilot we learn Otis is a sexual anomaly; who ever heard of a teenage boy who doesn’t masturbate? Well, a teenage boy with a habitual over-sharing and boundary-crossing sex therapist mother. Waking up to the sounds of your mother engaged in coitus is surely a mood killer, and apparently to the point that it can put one off self-gratification entirely? There’s more to that story, but initially it’s established that Otis just can’t wank--a fact he is surprisingly open and honest about with his best friend, Eric. Eric, on the other hand, is delightfully uninhibited and candid about his sexual escapades (or attempts there at). His character is easily the bright spot of the entire series; he’s funny, flamboyant, camp, and a snazzy dresser. Not relegated to merely the comic relief (as many best friend roles are), Eric is a fully developed/actualized character with his own interests and motivations. Together he and Otis make arguably one of the best teen friendships on TV. The originality of the pairing (gay and straight male bffs), and their genuine, joyful rapport elevates their relationship dynamic--that is until the second half of the season… Nevertheless, at the beginning things are good(ish). Otis and Eric are two social misfits at the bottom of the high school food chain, but they cheerfully have each other.

A little less inventive (as is standard high school fare), there’s a whole cast of (almost cliché) characters; the cool clique (“The Untouchables”), the school bully, the loner outcast, the popular jock, and so on. Each student is preoccupied with their own life and problems, which often revolves around sex or relationships. Eventually this intersects with Otis. Now Otis may be a sexually stunted virgin, but mama didn’t raise no fool. Through a combination of his mother’s parenting as well as eavesdropping on her therapy sessions, Otis has learned a lot in the ways of sex and relationships. And it is through this intimate knowledge (though none of it gained firsthand) that he is able to assist his clueless classmates (with hilarious results). The sexual high jinks of a bunch of hormonal teens form the basis of much of the show’s humor. There are over the top physical gags (priapism, simulated fellatio, projectile vomiting), as well as subtler situational comedy. Asa Butterfield (reminiscent of a young Hugh Grant, with his disarming, flustered demeanor and behavioral ticks) deftly plays the straight man (no pun intended) to the comic foils of Eric and others. The absurdity of the situations, combined with the sheer shock value keeps the plot entertaining, but the show’s true strengths lie elsewhere.

One of the series’ superior qualities is the seemingly paradoxical expertise of an inexperienced sex expert; because what that truly boils down to is effective communication (providing and teaching it). Otis’ first foray into the field of sex education is actually accidental and off the cuff. But despite having an audience (loner Maeve is in attendance), and featuring an intimidating patient (Adam the bully), Otis’ composed manner and words of wisdom do the trick. Otis is able to talk Adam into the right headspace to relieve his Viagra-induced, prolonged erection, and from there, help Adam overcome his erectile dysfunction with his girlfriend. Impressed with Otis’ hidden talent, Maeve suggests turning his abilities into a business venture, which he hesitantly agrees to. What isn’t much of surprise is that Otis should have a crush on the aloof rebel, Maeve (which assisted his decision making). However, the way the show handles and explores said crush, is where it shines again. It would be typical and predictable for our young protagonist to win over his love interest by the end of the story. Perhaps because we are not at the end, or perhaps because the show is bucking tradition, Sex Education refreshingly doesn’t have Otis “get the girl.” At least not in the way the audience originally anticipates.

The show succeeds again in its depiction of a platonic male and female teenage friendship. Through their sex therapy enterprise Otis and Maeve become friends, legitimate friends who open up to and rely on each other. But despite Otis’ secret crush, he doesn’t act entitled towards Maeve or expect anything more than friendship from her. It should be a given that you treat people with respect, but with so many unhealthy, toxic depictions of unrequited love, it feels like an achievement that Sex Education doesn’t go down that road. Even when Otis (unintentionally) facilitates Maeve and Jackson becoming a couple, he doesn’t become resentful towards her or change his behavior. Granted his momentary jealously led him to (attempt to) give Jackson bad advice in wooing Maeve. But he regretted that immediately, and his actions backfired anyway with Jackson winning over Maeve. So after all that, Otis is human, but he’s a decent and well-adjusted human (unfortunately, the bar is that low). Because in a story where a boy pines for girl, and the audience is supposed to identify with the protagonist (and therefore want what he wants), it is unusual for the boy not to get what he wants. But what does Otis really want?

The show continues to add to its varied relationship repertoire with the introduction of Ola. The daughter of Jakob the handyman (Jean’s own love interest), Ola is introduced 3 episodes in (so well after it is established that Otis likes Maeve). However, the plot takes a turn with Otis simultaneously becoming intrigued / interested in Ola, while seemingly maintaining his crush on Maeve. Eventually the tables turn and it is Maeve who ends up chasing after Otis, but by then he has moved on and chosen Ola. It seems fitting that Otis ends up with Ola, they share the same (in)experience level, so they “make sense” as a couple (for other reasons as well). However, I do wonder if Ola is intended to be his “starter girlfriend”, with Maeve being the endgame relationship. After all, Otis does compare the two girls to a house cat and a lioness, respectively. So it is conceivable that he still harbors feelings for Maeve, but decided not to put his life on hold because he couldn’t be with her (at the time). The bigger question then becomes is it inevitable that Otis and Maeve will end up together? Probably so. It would be a shocker if the show didn’t eventually take that route. Although frankly Ola's treatment and if she will be thrown under the bus is a concern in that scenario.

Speaking of characters getting thrown under the bus; where Sex Education absolutely drops the ball is in the handling of Eric’s assault. While shocking and dramatic turns of events can be expected, that storyline is disturbing on several fronts. Firstly, an adult assaulted a minor, factor in the racial dynamic (white man attacking a black teen), add the homophobic/transphobic element, and that constitutes one (if not more) hate crimes. Hate crimes are a serious subject matter, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the story progresses. A show can tackle any topic they choose, however there is a responsibility not to do harm through inaccurate or negligent portrayals (especially of marginalized groups). Sex Education handled Eric’s assault not only irresponsibly but callously. Eric reaches the Milburn’s home (after being left bleeding on the side of the road at night), only to be met with irrationality and insensitivity from his alleged best friend. Eric only ended up in such dire straits because Otis bailed on him to be with Maeve, a fact which Otis can barely own up to without deflecting. Truth be told, their entire exchange didn’t even feel authentic. Otis tentatively asks “what happened to your face”, to which Eric doesn’t answer, he just calls Otis self-centered. Then when Otis asks “why are you so angry” (maybe the bloodied face has something to do with it??), again Eric avoids the straightforward answer (he was assaulted while dressed in drag), and continues on with the selfish friend angle. The whole scene dances around the severity of the situation by failing to address the violence, and instead focuses on the secondary (less serious) issue of getting ditched by your friend. By that point it felt like the show had gone off the rails because Otis has the gall to say “the truth is Eric you’re only angry right now because I’m getting a life beyond our friendship and you can’t deal with it.” In what world is that true? Eric is the victim of a homophobic attack yet that is never mentioned. What an insulting and superficial exchange between two friends whose relationship depiction had been honest and authentic up until that point. To add insult to injury, throughout the rest of the series Eric’s trauma is never directly or adequately addressed, and therefore Otis’ (eventually) forgiveness is not earned. This plotline might be a non-issue for some viewers, but it really demonstrated a fundamental lack of empathy and carelessness for the character of Eric. Whatever the writers were trying to achieve with that plotline, it was severely disappointing and marred an otherwise near-flawless show. Nevertheless, the show must (and does) go on, and by the end it feels like they've almost redeemed themselves.

More than just a raunchy teen comedy, Sex Education also manages to earnestly and poignantly tackle the emotional lives of its characters. And not just the main ones Otis, Eric and Maeve, but supporting characters including Jackson, Adam, and Aimee all have individual and layered development in their own right. Furthermore, spanning issues of awkwardness, anxiety, social class, sexuality, bullying, and abandonment, to name a few, the show delves into topics that can’t help but resonate with viewers. Equal parts funny and touching, silly and serious, with plenty of 80’s and 90’s cultural aspects thrown in, there is something to entertain the broadest of audiences. If you’re looking to laugh out loud, cheer in your seat, and maybe even learn a thing or two yourself, Sex Education is a class you shouldn’t skip.

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