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By Ani Bundel
Netflix’s forays into teen-focused series have yielded some of the streaming service’s biggest hits to date, from “Stranger Things” to “13 Reasons Why.” But where mystery and dramatic offerings have reportedly brought along good ratings, Netflix teen comedies have had a tougher time. Often they don’t land, like the one-and-done season of “Everything Sucks,” or wind up as tone-deaf horror shows like “Insatiable.” Luckily for Netflix, the platform’s latest series, “Sex Education,” is a fabulous comedy, a modern update of the high school comedy genre, but remade for today’s sensibilities.
The mainstreaming of the #MeToo movement was first motivated by horrors perpetrated at the highest levels of the entertainment industry. Later, however, offshoot discussions examined the way toxic masculinity has long been a part of popular — and indeed critically acclaimed — shows and movies. Teen sex comedies like “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Porky’s,” and “Risky Business,” all came under new scrutiny due to their reliance on tropes of male competition and the overt objectification and sometimes abuse of women.
Teen sex comedies like “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Porky’s,” and “Risky Business,” all came under new scrutiny due to their reliance on tropes of male competition and overt objectification.
But while some wrung their hands that this new awareness was killing the genre, “Sex Education” would beg to differ. The series stars Asa Butterfield (“Ender’s Game”), as Otis, a sexually repressed boy coming of age in the fictional British town of Mooredale. He and his best mate Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), one of the secondary school’s very few openly gay students, aren’t so much unpopular as unnoticed. It’s a status Eric plans to fix, though exactly how isn’t clear. Otis isn’t convinced. As the son of renowned sex therapist Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson, sporting her “I didn’t know she was British” accent from “The Fall”), he gets more than enough attention from his boundaryless wonder of a mother, who treats her son’s sexuality as a case study.
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Despite his own issues, Otis, quite by accident, discovers a talent for counseling other teens through their own insecurities. When the school bully Adam (Connor Swindells) accidentally reveals he’s having erection problems, Otis gives him practical advice. As Otis’ reputation as the go-to person for sex advice grows, he attracts the attention of Maeve (Emma Mackey), who is initially presented as a “bad girl.” Maeve’s reputation turns out to be just the typical misleading rumormongering that attaches itself to confident girls, however. She sees his talents as a great way to start a side counseling business, forging an instant friendship with Otis — and Otis’ first crush.
The show doesn’t shy away from sex. As a UK production, the series leans into its double entendres. Sometimes this eagerness feels forced, not unlike an overly confident teen. The series also spends the first few episodes leaning heavily on Otis’ home life in order to maximize Anderson’s comedic presence — while known as a dramatic actress in the U.S., she delivers screamingly funny lines with near-perfect timing.
However this early reliance on Anderson, as well as on British acting veteran Alistair Petrie as the school’s headmaster, fades in later episodes as the kids, many of them played by relatively inexperienced actors, gain the confidence needed to carry the show by themselves. Happily, the departure of the adults does not make the series dumber. Instead, it actually becomes more compassionate.
While some of the tropes are predictable, the showrunners clearly feel real empathy for these kids, all of whom are groping towards more than just a sexual ending. The show, ultimately, is about young people trying to figure out how to be happy and have healthy and fulfilling relationships.
Like the romantic comedy, bawdy teen comedies have become less popular over the past decade, with the last notable additions to the genre coming in the mid-aughts with movies like “The Girl Next Door” and “Superbad.” But both of those films were firmly grounded in the idea that such comedies mostly revolved around straight men, and the way to get laid was to borrow from Howard Stern’s playbook. Much more recently, there’s been a mini revival of films trying to re-center the genre around women, exemplified by female-driven comedies like “Blockers.” But even that movie didn’t (or wouldn’t) dive into the way teenage intimacy is intimately connected to vulnerability.
“Sex Education” is, on the surface, the story of a teen virgin who can heal everyone’s sex problems. But look past the erection jokes and you’ll find a show that’s willing to acknowledge the emotional challenges of sex are just as important as the mechanical ones.