NETFLIX

Developed by Laurie Nunn
Starring Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Ncuti Gatwa
Currently available on Netflix

"It’s my vagina." In a surely timeless sequence, the pupils of Moordale Secondary School stand up one by one and claim the explicit image circulating online as their own, whether boy or girl, to the headmaster’s (Alistair Petrie) mounting frustration ("it cannot be all your vaginas"). Only this series could make such a daft comic scene as this so poignant: it builds and swells until you’re practically punching the air in solidarity, as each student stands up for the victim of body-shaming in a call to arms of teenage empowerment and positivity.

Nothing better captures the emboldening, bravura, yet sweet-natured spirit of Netflix’s latest original offering, created by Laurie Nunn. Bolstered by empathetic performances from a supremely-talented cast lead by Asa Butterfield, Sex Education traverses the platitudes of teenage sexual awakening and growth while showing a depth of understanding and sensitivity unmatched almost anywhere else. Our hero, 16 year-old Otis (Butterfield), repressed by a debilitating social and sexual awkwardness as well as his prying sex therapist mother (a glorious Gillian Anderson), discovers an uncanny ability to solve his fellow teens’ bedroom issues. He sets up a paid clinic in the school alongside rebellious outcast Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) as complex – and horny – dramas of adolescence unfold around them.

The show sets itself apart with a bold and unique aesthetic quality, a stylised presentation comprising a 70s/80s-infused soundtrack coupled with retro set and costume design, laced with the tropes of high-school Americana. The seemingly anachronistic design and unclear time setting has been the focus of much of the show’s social media chatter, but this presentation is key to its intent – the series as a superficial package becomes eminently appealing and watchable, calling to that nostalgic need embedded in popular consciousness.  Shot in high contrast, the show is a burst of colour that takes on a fantasy element and a universal quality that establishes an instant connection to the viewer.

NETFLIX

Yet the series’s strength lies in the ease with which it carries itself off – Sex Education arrives with subdued fanfare, funny and gently subversive, and leaves in the final episode on a touching and similarly lowkey note, packing an emotional wallop but making no claims to self-importance in its core message. But it’s what is packed in between that makes the biggest impact. Each story arc grows organically, crucially lacking the condescension of other works of its ilk, building layer upon layer of emotional complexity and, certainly in the case of Maeve’s difficult storyline, distress.

In this light, it is staggering to think that much of the young cast are relative screen debutants. Mackey shows an astonishing range as Maeve, bearing on her shoulders some of the series’s weightier themes, while also delivering its sharpest wit. Able support is found in fellow newcomers Connor Swindells and Kedar Williams-Stirling, whose plotlines, as ‘bully’ Adam and athlete Jackson, take on unforeseen gravity beyond their superficial character moulds. Gillian Anderson brings the acting gravitas, providing an effective counterpoint to Otis’s bumbling angst and some of the show’s funniest lines (not least her mistakenly asking the plumber his earliest memory of his scrotum).


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However, Ncuti Gatwa as faithful best friend Eric is a triumph, threatening to steal the show from under the nose of acting royalty. With only two minor credits to his name before this, Gatwa announces himself stunningly with an assured and gutsy performance, in a storyline of awakening identity and self-love that probes some dark and harrowing corners on the way.

Sex Education doesn't just break down barriers and taboos, it emphatically bulldozers a whole spectrum of them, tackling urgent themes in an ambitious yet unassuming way. Where most pop culture would either shy away or confront with the emotional subtlety of a sledgehammer, anxiety, same-sex parenting, racial identity, drug abuse, body-shaming, and sexuality are highlighted here with a warmly humorous touch. In perhaps its strongest and most affecting instalment, abortion is addressed head-on in the show’s signature style ("nothing says Happy Abortion like a bouquet"), an emotive sucker punch that manages to be hilarious, sweet, and devastating all at once. Which, really, is how all teen drama should be.

The series delivers a surge of adolescent empowerment regardless of identity or sexuality and a simultaneous arm around the shoulder to those who feel unrepresented or disillusioned, embodied by Eric’s arc. Continuing Netflix's fiercely-hot streak of original in-house production, it is no understatement to say that Sex Education is the most unpatronising and honest portrayal of adolescent life in recent popular culture. The series is so effective and so well-executed it becomes necessary viewing, demanding to be seen by this or any generation.

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