Netflix has not had a good run recently with teen programmes: 13 Reasons Why was critiqued as dangerous to their audience, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser turned out to be problematic, and Riverdale has essentially become a meme.
However, the UK has a good history with funny, relatable teen shows like Skins and Misfits, which were huge international successes worldwide, not despite but because they were gritty and unglamorous and rang truth to the messiness of the universal teenage experience.
So, mix Netflix’s stunning production values with a tradition of relatable content and you get an addictive, almost perfect TV series.
Sex Education revolves, well, around sex. It follows the life of Otis (Asa Butterfield). He has gathered a lot of knowledge and expertise about everything sex by observing his mother (Gillian Anderson), who works as a sex and relationship therapist and has decorated the house accordingly.
Yet, Otis is unable to use this knowledge for himself. So, he ends up sharing it with his entire school, delivering his own therapy sessions, coerced into doing so by resident punk Maeve (Emma Mackey).
From a lesbian couple unable to orgasm together to the headmaster’s son who has issues with accepting the size of his member, Otis has the right fix for everyone. But the sex clinic fades quickly into the background and becomes an expedient to talk about sex in a deep and blunt way, without trivialising and making it gratuitous.
The characters take the foreground with their rebellious, vintage costumes, making you wonder which decade the series is set in. Sex Education gives its characters the same treatment it gives the subject matter. It is never superficial and never gives short or quick answers.
It plays with the conventions of the teen drama but every character is complex and has a specific background that makes them who they are. It is the relationships between those characters and the performances which bring them to life that drives the series. You quickly fall in love with Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and his flamboyant mannerisms and you may see a bit of yourself in the quirkiness of Lily’s (Tanya Reynolds) fantasies.
Not only is it immensely funny, but a new generation of teens will grow up having watched this and having internalised the messages it conveys. But, as much as it removes a huge layer of stigma around sex, it is still not a perfect series for teens because none of the actors are teenagers. No 16-year-old has ever looked like these characters. You simply do not have that body when you are that age. And at this age when young people start questioning their appearance, it is massively important that they see someone who actually looks like them on screen. For anyone who doubts that people that age are too inexperienced as actors, take a look at Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.
Image credit: Movie DB