Streaming on: Netflix
Creator: Laurie Nunn
The New Year on Netflix has started with a bang. Well, I’m not talking about the pre-credit scene of the pilot episode of Sex Education, where the boy fakes an orgasm because there’s a lot of pressure on him to perform given his schlong size. I’m not even talking about those two girls who have been scissoring away on the bed and in the pool but there’s absolutely no sexual excitement in either of them. And I’m definitely not talking about our boy hero who just can’t jerk off! Rather jack off because the show, although not specified, must surely be set on Queen turf, given that abortion doesn’t cost money.
Yes, there are lots of failed sexual adventures on Sex Education but the series is a slam dunk all the way. It might initially remind you of the American Pie films (now, a different generation, I guess) but it very smartly veers away from just an assembly of funny college sexcapades into something meaningful, empowering and – surprise, surprise – heartwarming. That heartwarming wave emanates from the innocent eyes and the sunny smile of Otis, played by Asa Butterfield, that kid from Hugo. He’s grown up a bit but still carries that angelic presence that is difficult not to like.
The idea of having Butterfield play a virgin who’s giving sexual counselling to his classmates is pure genius. With a straight face but a wise voice, Otis spells out all the intimacy issues like a pro. It’s a bit like having Munnabhai giving gyaan on Mahatma Gandhi. And boy it works, with all those other kids actually paying for his services and spreading the word about this new doctor in high school.
Munna’s mother is the key here. Because Dr Jean, played by Gillian Anderson, is an actual sex therapist who has sessions at their home every day. And by sessions, I do not mean only therapy sessions but intercourse with men whom she would not like to meet again in her lifetime. The home itself is decorated with all kinds of erotic paintings and phallic figurines. It’s the kind of environment where coitus should be “a natural, zesty enterprise” but poor Otis struggles to masturbate at his attic room every damn night.
Till he meets Maeve (the fetching Emma Mackey), the proverbial bad girl in class who lives alone in a trailer park, has no idea where her parents currently are and who’s unwittingly earned the cruel nickname of Cock Biter. But the rebel that she is, Maeve is into the school’s head boy and swimming star, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling). And briefly, when Otis actually helps Jackson get into Maeve’s heart and not just her pants, Sex Education does get dangerously close to Bollywood territory.
But the show has higher ambitions. The abortion episode is brilliant not only because of the way Maeve handles it or because of the way Otis reacts to it but the way the show never sensationalises it or milks it. In fact, Maeve doesn’t even tell (the father) Jackson when she meets him next and just goes on to have sex with him one more time.
My favourite moment of Sex Education, though, comes at the end of Episode 5 when everyone comes together so as not to shame one particular girl whose vagina close-up is being circulated on phones. “It’s my vagina,” shouts a girl in the assembly period, followed by another girl, followed by another and suddenly the entire school, including boys, are standing up for each other. It’s a moment which is not forced and incredibly powerful.
And I haven’t even written a word about Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) yet. Otis’s best friend from the time they were really young, Eric is black and gay and is made fun of by almost everyone in school. Till he “toughens up”. It’s a beautifully written – and played – character and Eric’s relationship with his father make for some of the most poignant moments of the show.
But you know why you’ll stream Sex Education this weekend if you already haven’t. Gillian Anderson, yes! With her Christine Lagarde haircut and stylishly slurred speech, Dr. Jean doesn’t remind you of X-Files’s Scully one bit. This new Anderson avatar is one for keeps, not just because of her measured mating advice to her patients but the way she tries to be honest and frank about sex with her troubled son. And you have to see her go all quivery when Swedish plumber Jakob turns up to fix her taps!
Whether it’s teenage sex problems or matters of the heart or the eternal crisis of identity, Sex Education rings true in every episode. As Otis’s Mom says, “Middle adolescence is a tumultuous stage of development” and the show captures that tumultuousness perfectly. It’s just what the “doctor” ordered for the New Year.