Netflix’s new coming-of-age sex comedy Sex Education has one thing in particular that reeled me in right away: Gillian Anderson, floating around a gorgeous riverside house with ski lodge aesthetics in a series of silk robes and pantsuits, clutching glasses of wine and bowls of chips or popcorn, teaching people how to — as one teen on the show puts it — bone better. More accurately, she’s a sex and relationship therapist who nonetheless seems to have a lot of issues with boundaries. She keeps a revolving door of lovers, afraid to commit in the wake of her ex-husband cheating on her with his own therapy clients. She’s a life ruiner, and I happily let her ruin mine every time she’s on screen in the eight-episode series.
But while she’s a solid hook, she isn’t really who this story is about. Sex Education instead centers the person she struggles with boundaries with the most: her anxious, earnest son Otis, who takes what he has absorbed from his therapist mother and spits it out to teens in desperate need of sex and relationship advice for money.
The series is surprisingly visually immersive with lovely cinematography, which isn’t typical of the high school dramedy genre and adds even more specificity to the show’s voice. The soundtrack goes hard. But the real charm lies in these characters. Sex Education employs tropes and character stocktypes and then refracts them by way of little twists, injected depth, and the show’s weirdo sense of humor. Otis teams up with the smart and snarky Maeve, who is one of the most alive and grounded iterations of the smart-rebel-girl-from-a-troubled-home stocktype I’ve seen in a while. Eric, Otis’ best friend, is a glowing, perpetually optimistic queer black boy who feels far from a cliche. His friendship with Otis delights. They’re two loners who have found comfort and intimacy in each other.
Sex Education manages to pack in several fully realized, complex character arcs in its eight episodes. Jackson, the seemingly perfect jock and headboy who Maeve starts sleeping with, has been on anxiety medication since he was nine and has panic attacks that make him feel like he’s dying, something he tells Maeve during one of several endearing, heartfelt scenes in the series. He also has gay moms, and even with their little screen time, they feel like real, fully developed characters, the strains of their relationship due to their different approaches to parenting popping through.
Otis helps his classmates with a slew of sexual frustrations and curiosities, including a pair of recently out best-friends-turned-girlfriends who reluctantly realize that that can be an imperfect relationship transition to make. Most episodes start with a sex scene introducing Otis’ latest clients, and Ruthie and Tanya’s starts with them desperately trying to find a comfortable scissoring position. Tanya’s inexperienced but eager to please and try and try and try. But something isn’t clicking, and when Otis suggests it might not necessarily be just a sex issue but a relationship issue, Ruthie, who’s biting and appropriately skeptical of a 16-year-old sex therapist, immediately throws her walls up.
But Otis, as he so often does, turns out to have the right intuition here. Ruthie and Tanya came out to each other around the same time and, as best friends, thought it made sense to take their friendship to a new place. But friendship chemistry doesn’t always translate to sexual or romantic chemistry. Sex Education skips Ruthie and Tanya’s actual coming out arc to fast-forward ahead to the difficulties and pressures of being newly out. Tanya and Ruthie force something just because they think they’re supposed to. It’s a little heartbreaking but sweet, too.
Sex Education often combines it’s acidic sense of humor with gooey earnestness, especially via Otis. He’s not just giving his classmates sex tips; he’s teaching them about themselves, their self-worth, giving them tools to overcome anxiety and doubt. His advice is surprisingly poignant and resonant for being a teen boy, but so much of Sex Education is about showing these teens grapple with a broad range of feelings and emotional intelligence instead of just reducing them to generic teen angst.
Come to have your life ruined by Gillian Anderson; stay for infectious teen drama laced with a very fun, weirdo sense of humor.