Sex Education is here to show you a good time and teach you how to open up. Also, it’s one of the best Netflix Originals to come out in months.
Because the Netflix content deluge is real, knowing what’s good and worth committing to has largely become a matter of how many friends, mutuals, and confidants tell you to watch something. Someone I trust told me to watch Sex Education. The binge watching wasn’t planned (is it ever?), but suffice it to say I beamed Gillian Anderson’s pantsuits into my eyeballs as though my life depended on it.
Sex Education centers on Otis (Asa Butterfield), a thoroughly awkward teen living in rural Britain with his mom (Gillian Anderson). She runs a sex and relationship therapy clinic in what I can only describe as a sex chalet; it’s idyllic, glasses of white wine abound, and every wall is adorned with smut. Quote Liz Lemon: I want to go to there.
Despite (and in part because) of his mom’s openness about fucking, Otis has a complicated and largely non-existent relationship with his own sexuality. As if that dynamic weren’t tricky enough, Otis discovers that he’s actually quite good at giving sex advice, despite not even being able to touch himself. With the help of a classmate (Emma Mackey), cool beyond her years, Otis reluctantly turns his vicarious sex and relationship knowledge into a business and becomes his school’s underground sex therapist. Heartfelt situational comedy ensues.
Butterfield gives a thoroughly nuanced take on what teen frustration can look like. Lest we forget: anger can come in soft-spoken, well-dressed, endearing packages. He’s like a tiny, more likable, Mark Corrigan. Likewise, unlike other cookie-cutter edgy schoolgirls, Maeve (Mackey)’s damage feels grounded and three-dimensional. Her economic difference from her rich peers is more than just flavor text; it colors who she is and the decisions she makes and is foregrounded through the series. Ncuti Gatwa’s performance as Eric, a gregarious beam of sunshine and Otis’ best friend, is brilliant. Queer, black, and bullied, Eric’s storyline takes a dark turn around the mid-season mark. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that what happens to Eric and the change it creates in him leaves a strong impression. Though, whether a strong impression based on the pain and damage of marginalized folks is in itself a radical thing is up for debate.
Sex Education’s supporting cast is largely assembled out of first-timers, and they knock it out of the park. In particular, Aimee Lou Wood is mind-bogglingly charming as Aimee Gibbs, a wealthy popular girl who’s actually a pleasure-seeking sweetheart. She’s the one to watch. Mark my words.
Sex Education is a frank show about the necessity for communication and understanding in face of the messiness of sex. There’s cringe in the right places, and its big sincere swings frequently land. That it effortlessly manages to be heartfelt and clever through, not despite, of its raunchiness is a delight and in no small part owing to its enormous empathy for teenagers. As if being a teen with hormones and no rulebook was hard enough: cellphones now exist to document the whole thing. Great.
Sex Education fucks in its own right, but it also reminded me of some other shows in my Netflix queue. Thus begs the question: do we have a genre on our hands?
As a media library, one of Netflix’s most visible classification systems is genre. And, as users, we tend to browse the site’s holdings through a generic lens; be it “thrillers,” “comedies,” or “emotional showbiz movies based on real life.” But Netflix isn’t just a collection: it’s a creative entity. A purveyor of self-commissioned original content since 2013, and a producer of original content long before that.
I don’t think it’s inherently controversial to claim that studios can gravitate towards specific kinds of content. Nor do I think I’m liable to snatch any wigs by suggesting that, if repeated over time, such content can ferment into something genre-like. The age of a “Paramount film” or a “Fox film” has been dead in the water for some time, but let’s just say the “A24 LaCroix dungeon” meme works for a reason. Which is to say nothing of folks like SpectreVision who are explicitly committed to genre filmmaking itself (p.s. if Netflix ever has a “genre” genre I will eat a whole red onion raw on camera).
Teasing out generic threads in Netflix’s original programming is a bit like spilling a bowl of party mix on the floor and seeing a saint’s face. Which is to say: the scope and breadth of the original catalog are such that if two things share a mouthfeel, it’s probably (mostly) by accident. To be clear: this haphazardness isn’t a bad thing, but being specific about the difference between algorithm-generated Netflix genres, “Netflix Originals” as an entire genre, and a genre that happens to be made up of Netflix Originals is important. Mostly because I don’t want to give Netflix credit if I don’t have to.
Sex Education is part of a Netflix genre that I have been thinking about a lot lately. It’s populated by other Netflix originals, like Big Mouth, American Vandal, Chewing Gum, and probably others that have yet to slink across my queue. If I were a Netflix algorithm I’d be inclined to call them “Teen Sex Comedies,” but that’s not quite right.
Sex Education and shows like it focus on the absurdity of being a young person, who is horny, in the internet age. And, wouldn’t you know it, they find humor in that absurdity without mocking sex itself. This is at the crux of why these shows have stood out and come into conversation with one another for a lot of folks. Sex positive teen sex comedies know the difference between ridiculous and ridicule and the result tends to be richer, more nuanced, and a whole lot funnier.
The other wrinkle of these sex positive teen sex comedies (not the catchiest name, I’m working on it) is the presence of the internet. Brace for understatement: social media has, by definition, really done a number on the way we relate, interact, and express love for one another. It’s difficult enough to navigate social media as a grown ass adult—to do so as a horny teen still figuring things out is largely uncharted territory. I’d imagine the last thing you want when you’re in the throes of puberty is a surveillance state made up of your peers, documenting the whole thing.
Suffice it to say this species of teen sex comedy hits two particularly sensitive and interconnected 21st-century pressure points: 1) stigmas around sexual politics and; 2) the hell the internet hath wrought. This has led to a recurring take that “youth are better off with a Netflix account than a schoolbook.“
What’s important to understand is that this take isn’t actually about the pedagogical value of these shows, so much as the sheer depravity of government sex-ed structures. I write to you from Toronto, where our PC government has replaced the province’s modern sex-ed curriculum with one from almost two decades ago. Seeing a Netflix show do a better job is absolutely frustrating. That said: I really don’t think this genre is out to teach the teens.
Narratives about encountering sexuality haven’t always been sex positive. They haven’t always made space for consent, sexual health, and female pleasure. This is a genre by and for adults telling the story of what it means to be horny in the 21st century. Navigating sex and other human activities in the Information Age is absurd. No other generation has had to reckon with nudes leaking on Snapchat.
What better way to process a figurative and literal clusterfuck than through stories? To re-write the narratives we wished we’d had, that we still need to hear and that we need to pass on.