It’s a great time to be coming of age. Not since the late ‘90s has there been such an explosion of movies and television shows centred on the discomfort and growing pains of the teenage experience. Hell, with movies like Lady Bird being nominated for Academy Awards and this year’s Eighth Grade in serious contention, coming-of-age teen entertainment has never been taken more seriously as legitimate art.
Netflix in particular has become a hub for these stories. All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, and Alex Strangelove are entertainment for and about teens, while raunchier fare like American Vandal or the animated, adolescent-focused Big Mouth (our favourite comedy of 2018) ask adults to reminisce on their awkward years. Stories about teenagers appeal to us all because the uncertainty that comes with growing up never truly goes away, even when you’re well into adulthood. Puberty may last a short amount of time, but it’s a universal experience that’s relatable for a lifetime.
Enter Netflix’s newest comedy series Sex Education. Set in the UK, yet singularly inspired by American teen comedies like the John Hughes canon, Sex Education is a bit tamer than Big Mouth in its exploration of hormone-induced teenage horniness and all of the confusing, mortifying things that come with it, but it’s still definitely too wild to be screening in your son or daughter’s high school health class. Centered on Otis (Asa Butterfield), the son of sex therapist and bestselling author Jean Milburn, Sex Education finds Otis and the complicated, secretly brilliant Maeve (Emma Mackey) dealing out sex advice to their clueless classmates despite the fact that Otis’ sex-positive upbringing has left him an asexual mess who is frightened of his own phallus.
Early on in the series, Sex Education goes for crass, gross-out humor too often instead of the sweeter, more sincere character work that it settles into later in the series. The pilot in particular can be a slog to get through, playing up way too many clichés of the genre; do we really need to see another scene in a teen TV show where the best friend character gives a long monologue outside of school on the first day, explaining the series’ mission statement and breaking down the school’s social hierarchy? I thought Not Another Teen Movie put that old trope to bed for good. But as I said, once the show finds its groove, it relies less on sex-based gags and instead explores the emotional issues underlying these teens’ bedroom issues with the sweet compassion that you’d find in this genre’s very best stories.
Otis’ queer best friend Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa, highlights this change the best. What starts off as a cliched, token best friend role gets deeper as we witness his home life and his slow journey of figuring himself out. The same goes for Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) a stereotypical airhead popular girl who is allowed to transform into something more nuanced, sweet, and most importantly, funny. Butterfield is great as Otis, all bug-eyed and nervous, noticeably uncomfortable in his own skin, but with enough charm bubbling underneath, and Mackey should see plenty of work coming her way after making Maeve the standout character. Obviously, Den of Geek fans will get a kick out of seeing Anderson have so much fun as the sexually brazen Jean, and she’s able to display some of Scully’s deep sensitivity and warmth once the characters’ quirks are established.
With plenty of classic ‘80s tunes on the soundtrack to set the tone (and some killer original cuts by androgynous punk powerhouse Ezra Furman), Sex Education hits all the expected marks for a loving, British homage to teen comedies, while also hitting on serious, often moving and deeply human new territory. With shows as smart and caring as Sex Education around to help guide the way, coming-of-age has never been so easy.
Sex Education is streaming now on Netflix UK.