“Sex Education” is a great title for a thoughtfully frank and often graphic new Netflix dramedy about a randy group of teenagers at a British high school, but let’s be honest: “Sex Education” would be a good title for a lot of what Netflix is serving these days, further sealing the streaming network’s intimate relationship with adolescents around the world.
There’s a reason they’re all glued to their phones and don’t wish to be disturbed. It has to do with privacy, deeply personal questions and an entire gamut of emotions waiting to be discovered — or binge-watched. Even with certain controls in place, one wonders if parents get a say anymore in what their kids are streaming.
But I didn’t come here to play Church Lady. I’m here to review an adult TV show that seems primarily aimed at the youth market — and I’m rather taken with “Sex Education’s” honest approach to the awkwardness, ookiness and general inevitability of teen sex.
Filmed in Wales, the eight- episode series is set in a high school that departs so wildly from the Hogwarts-style assumptions about the British educational experience that it might as well be named the John Hughes Memorial American-Style High School, where bells ring, lockers slam and the soundtrack is implausibly stuck on ’80s new wave hits.
Much like Greg Berlanti’s 2018 movie “Love, Simon” seemed to meld together an idealized then with a socially progressive, tech-savvy now, “Sex Education” (created by British playwright Laurie Nunn) exists in a permanent, vividly colored state of homage, as if seeming to ask: What if Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and the gang were so completely free to act on their most carnal desires that they wound up needing a sex therapist who was their own age?
Clearly envious of old sounds and feelings, this show makes 1981’s “Porky’s” look like a Victorian-era farce, along with a curious bit of cultural cross-wiring: “Sex Education” is fixated on American rituals of high school, while viewers here might be left envying the uninhibited misadventures of this diverse array of teenagers.
Asa Butterfield stars as 16-year-old Otis Thompson, your average nice-boy nerd (and virgin) with a peculiar distaste for anything having to do with sex, thanks to the success his now-divorced parents found when they co-wrote a bestselling book on intimacy. Living with his extremely open-minded, you-can-tell-me-anything mother, Jill (Gillian Anderson), Otis instead chooses retreat. He’s so self-conscious about sex that he won’t even allow himself to masturbate, which is a real affliction in a show where the act is celebrated as the surest way to know oneself.
Through a series of humiliating events, Otis accepts the offer of the school’s rebellious beauty, Maeve (Emma Mackey), to start up an ad hoc therapy practice, where students of all stripes begin paying money for Otis’ insightful advice, which he’s gleaned from a lifetime of living with his mother’s sex-positive outlook. Anderson is an absolute hoot as Otis’ mother — barging in on his anxieties and causing him to have new worries.
Despite his hang-ups, Otis has a mature head on his shoulders, and his advice to his peers — who come to him with Dan Savage-level questions about orgasms, anatomy and kinks — is always humane and generally spot-on. Although it will certainly prove too provocative for some parents, I can think of far, far worse things to discover on your teenager’s laptop.