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December 7, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Review: “Sex Education” gets real about sex

Sex Education

Netflix

With cliche cliques, mansion party scenes and characters who look a bit too mature and attractive to be 16, British Netflix series “Sex Education” portrays many aspects of teenagehood unrealistically. However, unlike many other plots about teens, it succeeds in its honest, realistic depictions of sex and all of the uncomfortable and delicate situations that come with it.

Meek sixteen-year-old Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) is a virgin, but he is no stranger to sex. His single mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a licensed sex therapist. Their roomy English countryside home is full of phallic sculptures and Kama Sutra paintings. Otis is used to awkwardly meeting his mother’s lovers when they mistake his bedroom for the bathroom and dodging her prying questions about masturbation. At first, Otis is embarrassed by his unconventional upbringing, but when he and his best friend Eric Effoing (Ncuti Gatwa) befriend outcast, too-cool bad girl Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), Otis finds a way to use his knowledge to help his classmates and make money doing it.

The concept of “Sex Education” is hilarious in and of itself. Watching Otis cringe as his mother ignores all boundaries is both endearing and amusing. Anderson’s acting personifies the dry, suggestive humor British comedies are known for. In one scene, Jean matter-of-factly uses the phrase “man milk” to ask the school bully and headmaster’s son, Adam Groff (Connor Swindells), if he suffers from impotence while he is at their house to work on a class project with Otis. Adam leaves embarrassed and angry because he secretly struggles with his sexual performance. Otis fears that Adam’s knowledge of his mother’s vocation will strip him of the small amount of social status he has at the school. At first, things take a turn for the worst when Adam sends around a video of Otis’ mother demonstrating manual sex on an eggplant. But when Maeve befriends Otis, she tells him about an idea that would turns his embarrassment into a gold mine.

Despite his own sexual inexperience, Otis has picked up a considerable amount of knowledge about healthy sex from his mother. Behind the illusion of other secondary school students’ graceful entry into their sexual primes, Maeve points out that many of the teens hide embarrassing secrets and insecurities regarding sex behind their composed facades. She proposes that Otis offers sex therapy to his classmates, charges for each session and gives her a cut. Eventually, Otis finds his knack for helping his peers feel confident in their bodies and libidos.

The premise of “Sex Education” allows for characters to be raw and fairly complex. It tears down the veil of teenage social status to reveal what most teens have in common: insecurity and uncertainty. “Sex Education” demonstrates that not just one trait, mistake or experience can define a person. The writers do a particularly good job portraying Eric. He is black and openly gay, and while both identities inform his experiences, he is not tokenized. While popular girl Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood) relies on her pristine reputation and social status, she also sneaks away from her preppy friends to share cigarettes with and confide in Maeve.

“Sex Education” is Mackey’s first major role, and she portrays her character with a subtle depth that allows her to be both fiercely strong and independent while also broken and sensitive. However, Maeve’s character slightly falls victim to the all-too-common “manic pixie dream girl” trope. With her pink hair, bad reputation, fishnet tights and love for punk bands like Bikini Kill, she’s a bit too stereotypically “cool girl.” She is the driving force behind Otis’ newfound confidence, and, is, of course, his ultimate love interest but spends much of the series deserving of more appreciation.

Despite its quirky charm, “Sex Education” is not a show to watch with your parents. The first few minutes of the first episode are an awkward sex scene between Adam and Aimee, complete with nudity and dramatic moaning. Given its concept, the show is for mature audiences, but it isn’t raunchy for the sake of being raunchy.

“Sex Education” might be funny and risque, but it also deals with important issues in a genuine and sensitive manner. The show takes teens’ sexuality seriously instead of dismissing it or romanticizing it, and also handles themes like bullying, revenge porn and violence against queer people in a way young people can relate to. The cast and characters also have diverse identities both sexually and racially. “Sex Education” represents people of color and queer relationships with normalcy, intersectionality and empowerment.

Although it may dabble in the cliches of other teen dramas and comedies, “Sex Education” is genuinely funny and entertaining. In a fantasy world of stereotypical jocks, preps, outcasts and band geeks, the show succeeds in getting across some very real — and important — messages.