“Intercourse can be wonderful,” Jean Milburn tells her son Otis. “But it can also cause tremendous pain. And if you’re not careful, sex can destroy lives.”
Jean would know. She is a sex therapist and bestselling author on the subject, but her marriage to Otis’ father (also a sex therapist and her former co-author) ended because he couldn’t stop stepping out on her. Otis would know, too, since witnessing his father’s indiscretions and how they destroyed his parents’ marriage has left him an asexual wreck as a teenager. He’s afraid to masturbate, and an attempt to lose his virginity to an eager girl from school leads to a panic attack.
But even if Otis can’t have sex, he still knows far too much about it thanks to growing up with the carnally adventurous Jean for a mom, and from periodically eavesdropping on her sessions with clients. So when he and deceptively brilliant school outcast Maeve realize that their classmates are having all sorts of problems in the bedroom, they set up an unauthorized sex-therapy business of their own: Maeve finding clients, Otis dispensing sage advice to them.
This is the setup for Netflix’s marvelous new Brit-com Sex Education, starring Gillian Anderson as Jean, Asa Butterfield as Otis and Emma Mackey as Maeve. (It premieres January 11; I’ve seen all eight episodes, which run around 50 minutes apiece but breeze by.) Netflix has had a surprising affinity for teen sex comedies that are equal parts raunchy and sincere, like the surreally animated Big Mouth or the unexpectedly canceled American Vandal. Sex Education, created by Laurie Nunn, fits comfortably into that group — one of the characters even gets filmed spray-painting a giant dick onto a school wall — as it toggles between blunt humor and a gentler consideration of the emotional lives of its characters.
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Initially, the show leans a bit too hard on the graphic jokes. It opens, for instance, on well-endowed but sexually dysfunctional school bully Adam (Connor Swindells) faking an orgasm with girlfriend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), who demands to know where “the spunk” is. The show in those early stages seems to be, like Adam, putting on a display of sexual confidence that it doesn’t really feel. But it’s an effective introduction to the ways that Otis, Maeve and Otis’ queer best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), discover just how frightened and ill-equipped most of their classmates are to deal with this topic. Much of Otis’ advice winds up being not about technique but about the emotions underlying each new problem: that a pair of old friends who have become a couple probably shouldn’t have, or that Aimee needs to figure out what makes her happy rather than focusing on the needs of her latest hot boyfriend. It acknowledges that both sex and sexual identity can seem either ridiculous or terrifying, depending on the circumstances, with Eric’s journey of self-discovery touching on both, often in powerful ways.
Jean recedes into the background after a while, but Anderson — sporting a fabulous platinum coif, a variety of low-cut jumpsuits and the English accent she used on The Fall — is a comic delight. (Her enthusiastic delivery of the phrase “man milk” will stay with you.) And unsurprisingly, she’s terrific in the more dramatic moments when Jean tries to help her son deal with his own trauma. Butterfield is enormously charming, palpably vulnerable and deft with the jokes, like the hero of a movie John Hughes wrote for a young John Cusack but never got to make. (The soundtrack is peppered with Eighties tunes, like “Dancing With Myself” playing during one of Otis’ failed attempts at self-gratification.) Mackey, Gatwa and the rest of the young cast all find deeper layers to the familiar types they’re playing, even the mean girls (and boy) clique called the Untouchables. There’s one character who starts out as one cliché and is eventually revealed to be a different, slightly more modern cliché, but all the other kids are allowed to surprise and feel refreshingly human. Aimee, for instance, at first seems superficial and dim, but in time is revealed to be a sweet person who’s just dialed into another frequency from her classmates. (When asked how she got to a particular location, she admits, “I just sort of arrive places.”)