Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey as Otis and MaeveTWITTER/phenfranca

It’s weird and possibly a bit sad to watch a show and feel like its characters are your friends when they’re made-up and literally two-dimensional, but with Netflix’s Sex Education there’s almost no other choice. The people you meet are so complex, so mundanely, anxiously, and endearingly human, that it almost feels rude writing about them without their permission. I’ll admit, that’s probably a sign that I’ve gone a bit odd and need to get outside the house more, but you get my point.

“In Sex Education reality is synonymous with people.”

Their believability has a lot to do with the admirably deft but unostentatious way in which the show draws on potentially sensitive issues. Jackson for example has lesbian parents, a fact which in other hands might either become a defining aspect of his narrative or a tokenistic feature with no actual bearing on the story. Sex Education, however, unerringly avoids this binary. Instead, it brings to the foreground Jackson’s anxiety-ridden relationship with swimming, and it is only late in series two that this is linked to his non-biological mum’s own fears over her status in Jackson’s life. Behold, reality! A place where nothing singularly defines us, but everything has an impact on who we are. Though it might not be what attracts us about the title, this is a show which undoubtedly gives us its promised education.

The sense of reality brought on by the characters is, however, weirdly offset by the unreality of the world they move in. On my most recent viewing a friend commented, with purely academic interest I’m sure, that for a show about sex there aren’t many boobs. And it’s true, almost everyone in this world has sex with their clothes on — I don’t know about you but that seems strange to me. It’s not the only oddity: the characters’ clothes, houses and cars are straight from the 1970s/80s but they regularly text each other on modern smartphones. Though they speak in varyingly British accents (plus one French) and live in Welsh valley scenery, the students go to an American-style high school and the Milburns own an American-style fridge (thanks Wikipedia).

Ncuti Gatwa as Eric EffiongTWITTER/l_abidjanais

We are presented with an indistinct place in an indistinct time, and often this is a bit of a sticking point: on each of my three rounds of watching Sex Education, either I or the people I’m zealously converting have thought “oh that’s nice, bit strange” for the first two episodes. It’s only on the third, which features some hard-hitting but sensitively portrayed and incredibly moving scenes of Maeve at an abortion clinic, that the impact of this set-up kicks in. The ambiguous and jumbled backdrop is at best escapist and at worst alienating, as a frankly pants two-star review in the Independent indicates. Far from undermining the show’s seriousness however, it highlights the characters’ lives even more strongly for their poignant familiarity. We are able to engage in this world only because we recognise the people who live in it. By shunning realism, the world which comes most into focus is entirely that of the characters. Maeve’s visit to the clinic isn’t about NHS facilities, it’s about Maeve. The queerphobic assault on Eric isn’t about violent prejudice as a statistical likelihood in the UK, it’s about Eric. By dissuading ourselves from a sense that we can already understand the world of Sex Education, we are compelled to engage with its characters on a more immediate level.

“Behold, reality! A place where nothing singularly defines us, but everything has an impact on who we are.”

In Sex Education reality is synonymous with people. Even time is measurable only by them: with no obvious changes in seasons, or external constraints like impending exams or milk going off, or however else you measure your week, our only sense of the passage of time is found in the developing relationships of our beloved friends. Their triumphs and pitfalls, their joys and traumas, become both frame and content of the stories. We aren’t told how long it takes for Eric and Otis to make up after their fight, we’re only told how it happens. In one of the most surprising and heart-wrenching speeches of the show, Remi tells Otis at the end of series two to hold onto the people who see past his faults. Of course, we absolutely agree with him because in every preceding episode the only thing that has mattered has been our immediate sense of others, through their stories, their relationships, and their awkward attempts at self-discovery. After a year in pandemic-induced stasis where the usual joyful and stressful distractions of life have been few and far between, this seems particularly relevant: the only thing of any spurring, developing interest this past year has been our lives in relation to other people. As we trundle along the roadmap, let’s do as Remi says and hold onto that.

Oh also the show has sex in it, which is funny.


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