The Talk—we all know it, hate it, and under normal circumstances, would probably avoid revisiting the embarrassing, pubescent eras of our lives in which it was given to us. But Sex Education is The Talk revamped. This new Netflix Original is a witty, raunchy, and unexpectedly touching exploration of the confusing topics of teen sex and love, minus the awkward parental intervention.
Set in an undisclosed location in the U.K., Sex Education follows the life of Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), an awkward, 16–year–old student who has an unconventionally candid relationship with his sex therapist mother, Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson). Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), a highly intelligent yet troubled “bad girl," discovers Otis’ knack for guiding the sexually misled and convinces him to start an underground therapy clinic, charging the students of their school, Moordale Secondary, for Otis’ sex and relationship advice. Through the eight–episode series, Otis embarks on several misadventures with his black, openly gay best friend, Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa), and the school bully, Adam Groff (Connor Swindells).
Sex Education could have easily been written and produced as just a British live–action version of Big Mouth, or yet another boy–meets–girl story. But there are a few key factors that make this show a one of a kind, emotional, and—dare I say—educational experience.
1. The Setting
As I mentioned, Sex Education is set somewhere in the U.K., as can be told from the characters’ British accents and slang. But the school, Moordale Secondary, is oddly American. None of the students are seen wearing school uniforms, but all have lockers and eat in a cafeteria with plastic trays. Jocks wear letterman jackets and there’s a strong emphasis on school sports, especially swimming. Additionally, I first assumed the show to be set in the 1970’s or 80’s, due to the retro—yet admittedly, wildly stylish—attire of the cast and the set’s muted color scheme, which is typical of 70’s fashion and décor. But all the characters use smart phones and know what the Internet and Google are. The ambiguous time and place of Sex Education is cool, and almost feels like magical realism.
2. Eric Effiong
Eric, Otis’s best friend, is, by far, the best character of the series. Eric somehow breaks the bars of the stereotypical sidekick ‘gay best friend’ that so many are confined to. He’s not the main protagonist of the program, but his character is so complex and compelling that you’ll find yourself more emotionally invested in him than Otis or Maeve—at least I did. Throughout the series, he journeys through the ups and downs of sexual confusion, his identity as a proud gay, black man, support and love from a conservative African community, and most importantly, self–realization and acceptance. Eric is fierce, quick on his feet, lovable, and effortlessly hilarious all at the same time. Nctui Gatwa’s fearless portrayal of an openly gay teen from a religious British–Nigerian family is something we need to see more of.
3. Balance between Hilarity and Sincerity
Sex Education does a great job of channeling the crude, juvenile humor characteristic of Big Mouth, while maintaining a serious and, at times, heart–wrenching reality. It touches on difficult topics such as abortion, internalized homophobia, toxic parent–child relationships, violence towards gay people of color, and slut–shaming. Despite this heavy subject matter, though, the show lightens up with comic relief in the form of alien erotica.
4. An Intelligent, and All–Too–Real Premise
Despite Otis’ vast sexual knowledge and talent for helping his peers through their sex lives, he is still plagued with one huge problem for the entirety of the show—he can’t masturbate (or wank, as the Brits call it.) The premise of Sex Education is the ultimate paradox. Here you have this teenage virgin outcast, selling sex advice to classmates much more experienced than he—and he’s actually amazing at it. This genius premise that propels Sex Education forward is an ironic reminder that no one—not even a sex therapist’s son—truly ever knows what the fuck they’re doing during their weird, terrifying and amazing teenage years.