“Sex Education” Review: Gillian Anderson, Baby Dykes Learning to Scissor, Gay Moms, and a Whole Lot of Heart

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.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 170 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. “Come to have your life ruined by Gillian Anderson; stay for infectious teen drama laced with a very fun, weirdo sense of humor.”

    That’s literally what happened for me! I showed up expecting to endure some teen boy nonsense for the occasional glimpse of Gillian but I fell head over heels for this show so quickly.

    I really related to Otis in a way I never, ever expected to relate to a straight cis white teenage boy. My whole life, people always came to me for relationship advice. I guess I give off a vibe that I’m good with people, or give good advice. But even now, people will come to me, and I’ll do my best to help them. But I’ve never had a real, proper, healthy relationship of my own. So I understood Otis’s struggle, of wanting to help and even being good at helping others in one particular area but not being able to help yourself in the same way.

    Also I would die for Maeve, every day for the rest of my life. (Also she sometimes gave me Nelle from Hill House vibes so therefore her emotions were my emotions and FUCK did she have a lot of emotions which is also VERY RELATABLE.) I was like some weird combination of Maeve and Otis in high school. I had all of Maeve’s passion for learning and loneliness and independence-out-of-necessity, but instead of manifesting in a give-no-fucks outward appearance I was just an awkward bumbling mess like Otis.

    SORRY FOR RAMBLING I LOVE THIS SHOW and I loved this review!

  2. I binged this show with my mom on Sunday and there was something meta about a lack of boundaries and parental oversharing there, but I digress.

    I didn’t expect to become so involved with the characters and I like how they managed to flesh out so many storylines in 8 episodes. Not just the main trio, but the rest of the ensemble. They seemed very familiar and true, they felt like friends who I sometimes want to slap on the head a la Snape and go WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU BEAUTIFUL IDIOTIC CREATURE? only to immediately hug them and tell them things will look up.

    The cinematography and the soundtrack is lovely, I almost teared up when I heard the first chords of the origin of love, by the way.

  3. This show was unexpectedly beautiful! Even some of the most awkward characters and situations felt endearing. And the cast was excellent–especially Gillian Anderson, of course, whose chic jumpsuits are an education in sexiness in their own right.

  4. i loved the lesbian love triangle and also Jackson’s mothers!

    + Eric really stole the show–what an infectious presence 🙂 🙂 🙂 his storyline definitely hit me the hardest, though.

  5. I loved it and agree with every single thing everyone has said, but I still want to throw a criticism of the show on to the pile: there’s never any follow-up. The show starts off swarming with other characters clearly in the midst of their own stories, but once their storyline has expired (often with the help of Otis’ therapy) they just disappear, and the world of the show starts to empty out a bit. This works to bring the focus more tightly in toward the central characters at the end of the season, but I care about the other characters too!

  6. I really enjoyed this show!

    I haven’t seen anyone else do it yet, so I want to throw in a content warning for some homophobic violence in episode 5. It didn’t really take me by surprise because the episode kind of obviously built towards it, but it still made me sob.

  7. My girlfriend and I absolutely hate Otis. He’s really self-centered. Who yells at their best friend after he was jumped by homophobes on his birthday? Words cannot explain how hurt we were for Eric in that episode. It’s kind of hard to relate to a kid who doesn’t have really problems, but makes his life problematic.(And I know he’s traumatized about seeing his dad have sex, but you have a therapist for a mom. I’m sure they can afford therapy given the looks of their house!)

  8. OLA IN A TUX. OLA IN A TUX. OLA. IN. A. TUX.
    Serving Janelle Monae perfection, which is definitely deliberate, given Eric’s Electric Lady poster. She had already started to eclipse my crush on Maeve, and when she showed up in that divine tuxedo, my partner and I had to hit pause so we could squeal and swoon for a bit. How is the queer internet not rolling around in the streets fanning itself over her??

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