'Sex Education': New Netflix Series Is Raunchy But Subversively Sweet - Rolling Stone
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‘Sex Education’ Spoilers: A Raunchy Trojan Horse That’s Subversively Sweet

Sure, they’re horny. But the search for identity — not the quest to get laid — is what really drives the series’ thoughtfully-drawn teen characters

Emma Mackey as Maeve, Asa Butterfield as Otis and Connor Swindells as Adam in 'Sex Education.'Emma Mackey as Maeve, Asa Butterfield as Otis and Connor Swindells as Adam in 'Sex Education.'

Emma Mackey as Maeve, Asa Butterfield as Otis and Connor Swindells as Adam in 'Sex Education.'

Jon Hall/Netflix

Sex Education debuted last week on Netflix. I liked the show a lot, and now want to talk about the season as a whole — with full spoilers — coming up just as soon as I write this book on raising a pubescent male…

In light of almost everything that happens over the rest of the season, the opening scene of Sex Education seems a bit puzzling. First, the decor of Adam’s home and the clothing and manner of his parents almost creates the illusion of this being a Sixties period piece. (Otis having a turntable, retro taste in music, etc., only adds to the confusion, until somebody takes out a smartphone a few scenes later.) More importantly, though, it’s the sheer prurient bluntness of Adam and Aimee’s failed sexual encounter upstairs — where he has to fake an orgasm until she demands to know, “Where’s the spunk, Adam?!?!” — that’s a bit of a red herring. It’s not quite Skinemax softcore, but it’s not far off. Just as the house and then Otis’ records could lead one to believe that this show is set decades in the past, the in-your-face nature of what happens in that bedroom creates the expectation that this will be a very broad, raw comedy about naked bodies coming together (or not, in this case) as often as possible.

That’s not at all representative of what Sex Education quickly reveals itself to be. The actual show is thoughtful and sweet, clever and empathetic. And while the sex scenes — both successful and unsuccessful, since the latter drives business to Otis and Maeve’s bootleg sex therapy clinic — certainly don’t vanish, it’s telling that most of Otis’ good advice winds up being about the heart rather than the genitals. Before most of these kids can fully enjoy sex, they first have to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

Yet because of that, the opening scene — and a lot of material in the first episode, including Adam showing off his enormous member (said to be the size of two Coke cans) to the entire cafeteria — is actually very fitting.

Newsflash: Teenagers are thirsty. They think and talk about sex a lot. Some of them have sex a lot. It’s a tale as old as time (as evidenced by the John-Hughes-movie-ready soundtrack), and if the ways they think and talk about and do the deed have changed, the basic idea hasn’t. So before it can get to the more thoughtful stuff, Sex Education first has to establish just how sex-crazed everyone is — which in turn helps to introduce Otis as our hero, since he’s the one significant teen character who’s not looking to get any. His parents’ divorce, and the experience of witnessing the affair that caused it, has deeply scarred him, making him afraid to so much as masturbate to completion. He is the odd man out, feeling like the sane person in a world gone insane with lust, so winningly played by Asa Butterfield. But Eric initially is envious of Otis for having a sex therapist for a mom, and almost everyone we encounter at the school has the same primary instinct to satisfy their hormonal urges at any cost. Maeve makes a good partner for Otis because she’s relatively calm about it all. She has a lot of sex, but she also genuinely enjoys it, and has thrown up her hands at the fact that she was cruelly and unfairly branded the school slut long ago.

So these two outcasts with nothing in common (plus, at times, Eric) inadvertently team up to help Adam with his performance anxiety, and are soon attempting to offer lessons in oral sex, reassure people about their fetishes and more. It seems at this point as if Sex Education will be a raunchfest (albeit a clever one with an appealing cast). But the series very quickly starts to pivot away from biology and towards emotion. Their hormones are inexplicable and uncontrollable — Otis, after his adventure in the pool with Maeve: “She touched my eyebrows. Now I have an erection.” — however more often than not, the sexual dysfunction of Otis’ classmates turns out to have a non-physical cause(*), whether it’s the two friends who shouldn’t have become a couple simply because they were both gay, or Lily experiencing vaginismus (a muscular condition that can make sexual activity painful) right when she finally finds a guy to liberate her from her hated virginity.

(*) Inverting that amusingly in a later episode is Aimee having a self-gratification marathon after Otis tells her to figure out what satisfies her. Aimee’s among the more well-adjusted characters on the show, even if she’s a bit too eager to please others, so she needs a more direct form of sex therapy than the other kids.

Lily’s not one of the main characters, but her arc in many ways typifies the series’ themes and approach. We meet her drawing her tentacle-porn comic and fantasizing along with it, and then she starts desperately throwing herself at unsuitable boys (Eric is gay, Otis has panic attacks when he tries to have sex). While some of those scenes are played for laughs, the show never mocks her; one of its gifts is that it barely mocks anybody, and eventually offers empathy, or at least a moment of vulnerability, for most of the characters (even Adam’s father gets to dance in the hallway to Bob Seger, Risky Business-style). In the end, the best advice Otis winds up giving her is to wait until she feels genuinely ready to have sex, rather than racing to keep up with peers who already are.

Lily wants to redefine herself as someone more experienced, and ultimately a lot of the season becomes about all of the kids trying to assert or change their identity. Maeve finally realizes she shouldn’t try to hide the fact that she’s smart, but ironically it hits at the moment where she’s getting kicked out of school because of her brother’s drug dealing. Aimee works up the courage to walk away from the Untouchables and be Maeve’s friend in public as well as private. Jackson (who, like most of the supporting characters, is introduced as a stereotype and is revealed in time as something much more complicated) tries to break away from all the adults who want him to be a swimming star, even if he can’t quite escape them. And Eric has perhaps the show’s best and most original character arc. He’s introduced as being just as horny as everybody else, and he does end up having sex later in the season (more on that in a bit), but his story is primarily about him figuring out who he is and how he wants to present himself to the world. It’s terrifying and sad along the way, particularly in the episode where he gets beaten up after his failed outing to see Hedwig in full drag. But soon he gains the confidence to dress at school in the same genderqueer fashion that he initially only does in the privacy of his own room(*), to stand up to Adam (it helps that when Eric’s in heels; they’re the same height) and to not care quite as much as he used to about everyone else’s approval.

(*) It’s also fascinating and reassuring that Eric’s father turns out not to be a homophobe, but a dad who’s afraid of his son getting hurt for looking and acting so differently from what’s expected. Their scenes in the later episodes are wonderfully fraught and touching. So, for that matter, is the surprising way Eric’s trip to church winds up informing his final wardrobe transformation. 

Again and again, the show smartly subverts our expectations about who people are and what they’re capable of. At the abortion clinic, Maeve initially looks down on the older patient who seems to use the clinic as an extreme form of birth control. Soon, that woman is shown not only comforting Maeve and another girl, but crying in a way that makes clear how much her own choices pain her. (Even the clinic’s protesters are kind to Otis outside, though they never back off on their basic stance.) It never becomes remotely chaste, but it keeps returning to all the tricky matters of the heart that come right along with matters below the waist. Otis’ mother Jean (every line reading by Gillian Anderson is a treat, in a way that stays just on the right side of the line from cartoonish) has built a life for herself where she gets lots of sex without commitment — and without the possibility of being hurt the way Otis’ father so badly hurt her. But where she takes Jakob the handyman for her own personal porn fantasy, he’s got a complicated life — including the fact that Otis and his daughter Ola start dating — and wants more from her than her body. And she’s shocked to realize she’s willing to give him more.

The only time one of these reversals doesn’t work is the revelation that Adam’s homophobia comes from self-loathing about his own attraction to men. The show traffics in a lot of clichés, but this is by far the most tired and predictable one. Not only is it familiar, it can come across as self-congratulatory, just like the related cliché about the bully who picks on the nerds because he was once a nerd himself and feels embarrassed about it. Adam gets some good material at other points, like his jealousy over his father’s treatment of Jackson as more of a son than him, but it felt like a relief to see him shipped off to military school, just so that story could wrap for now. (Though he’ll probably come back if there’s a second season.)

The ever-shifting central love triangle — first Otis/Maeve/Jackson, then Maeve/Otis/Ola — is pretty cliché, too, but also pretty mandatory for the genre, and both Jackson and Ola turn out to be fairly likable in their own right, probably even more than the two leads. (At least, neither does anything as lousy as the way both Maeve and Otis wind up treating Ola at the dance.) The question of when or how or if Otis and Maeve might finally get together was much less thrilling than all the material about friendship and identity and sex therapy, but it’s also the cost of doing business in this area. And the fact that these eight episodes are able to pack in so much without ever feeling overcrowded or sluggish makes the whole feel even greater than the sum of its parts.

So no, Sex Education isn’t (only) about teenagers looking to sleep with each other wherever and whenever. It has a lot of bigger ideas on its mind, and it deals with them well, even as it offers up plenty of fine comedy about the many ridiculous things we can do to satisfy our urges. There’s style not only in the music, but the way the camerawork depicts Otis’ sexual panic attacks, followed by him rising to the ceiling, Jesse Pinkman-style, when he’s finally able to get himself off in the finale. Had that moment arrived prematurely in the season, it would have fit into the sense from the early episodes that Sex Education was more focused on the first half of its title than the second. Appearing when it does at the end, though, it feels like a welcome and deserved emotional release, as well as a physical one.

Some other thoughts:

* Someone please produce a caper movie where Margot Robbie and Emma Mackey play con-artist siblings.

* The contrast between how hard it is for Eric to work up the nerve to go full Seventies glam and how casually Ola appears in her tux when she arrives as Otis’ date for the dance was an understated way to point out one of the advantages girls have at this age: that it’s easier to cross gender norms without it becoming a thing. Once Eric stops dressing normcore in the aftermath of his beating, he becomes acutely aware of people noticing him in these flashier and more feminine clothes.

* Netflix has canceled American Vandal (boo!), but perhaps this season offers a belated solution to its Season One mystery: Adam drew the dicks. (Or, at least, the one that he’s filmed painting here.)

* Aimee is so funny. I quoted her line about just arriving places in last week’s review, but almost everything she says is amusingly off-kilter. Especially fun was the running gag about how she and others began describing her top-heavy new boyfriend Steve (“Looks like an ice cream cone!”).

What did everybody else think?


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