“Sex Education” Gives a Realistic Look at Adolescence

Going into the new Netflix Original series, “Sex Education,” all I knew was that Asa Butterfield (“Hugo,” “Ender’s Game”) had a lead role, and that was good enough for me. Butterfield is a rising star in Hollywood at only 21 years old, though he is often cast in films with sub-par scripts and directing that do not quite give the young actor a chance to show his skills. “Sex Education,” however, is a fine exception.

The show opens up with Otis Millburn (Butterfield) trying, and failing, to masturbate before school. He is interrupted by one of his mother’s lovers bursting into his bedroom, looking for the bathroom. It is revealed in the following scene that Otis’s mother, Dr. Millburn (Gillian Anderson) is a respected sex therapist, striking a contrast between her frank sexual openness (vis-à-vis the revolving door of male lovers) and the apparent sexual dysfunction of Otis.

We are then introduced to Otis’s classmates, including Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), a black kid who is open in his homosexual identity to everyone but his immigrant family, and Maeve (Emma Mackey), a promiscuous troublemaker with a passion for feminist literature. The first episode sets up their relationships to each other, as Otis and Maeve decide to open their own “sex clinic” in the abandoned toilets for their fellow students who, as it turns out, are all having some sort of sexual issue. As the series progresses, Otis and Maeve develop an unlikely will-they-or-won’t-they relationship, while a rift forms between Otis and Eric.

The humor of “Sex Education” is pretty spot-on and quotable, and keeps the viewer hanging on after every episode. When the series delves into more serious topics, such as vaginismus and abortion, it is compelling, and never lingers too long. While there is an episode focusing on the abortion of one of the main characters, the show does not turn it into a cheesy pregnancy subplot, in which the character might have a change of heart, or have unwarranted regrets following the experience. Instead, the show takes this as a moment to explore every side of abortion, from teen first-timers to older repeat-customers to the pro-life protesters outside. Every facet of the experience is given its fair slice of screen time.

While “Sex Education” seems to have some care towards the character of Eric, it does not give him nearly enough screen time. His journey through his sexual identity is a recurring sub-plot throughout the series, exploring issues of transphobia, immigration and religion as it bubbles along. Clearly, Eric is going through a lot, and one would think that that would be given a greater sense of importance, especially after he experiences an act of violence, a moment that might be all-too familiar to many LGBT youths, and harkens to the high rate of trans black women who are murdered and assaulted every year. However, the plot that takes precedence in this episode is Otis (who was supposed to be with Eric that day) and his, at this point, annoying relationship with Maeve, as they try to find out who is spreading the explicit pictures of a pretty despicable school bully. While I do not think that the show should have turned Eric’s assault into a “very special episode,” I do think that cutting from his progressively worsening day to Otis and Maeve flirting in a convenience store is in poor taste.

The ill treatment of Eric is indicative of a larger issue with shows within the same genre, in which the quirky teen leads often have plenty of time committed to their heteronormative developing relationship, while the gay sidekick is relegated to the sidelines, suffering in silence. I am hopeful that the second season will give Eric more attention, but since the season ended on a further complication on Otis and Maeve’s relationship, I know not to get too excited. More than likely, there will be more frustrating confusion between Otis and Maeve, and any new development with Eric will have to play second fiddle.

“Sex Education” is endearing, however, with a fun cast of characters to hold on to other than Otis and Maeve. Otis’s mother has her own romantic subplot which is particularly touching, and Lily (Tanya Reynolds) provides refreshing comedic relief as the sex-obsessed girl who draws tentacle porn. There is a lot to love about the series, even when some parts (i.e. Otis and Maeve’s relationship) get overwhelming. You are bound to find a character to relate to, or at least one to root for, in all of their unique sexual issues.

“Sex Education” is a Netflix Original television series created by Laurie Nunn. Season One is available now on Netflix with a second season in the works.  

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