HomeTelevisionSex Education: The Latest Socially Conscious Sex Comedy is a Winner

Sex Education: The Latest Socially Conscious Sex Comedy is a Winner

Sex Education
Photo Credit: Netflix

Let’s face the honest fact: many of us learn about sex through the films we watch — and the lessons we’ve learned from them are rarely educationally or ethically sound. But a paradigm shift seems to be taking place — films like Blockers and TV series like Big Mouth have shown the value of actually understanding sexuality, while also showcasing the full spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation, all while proving that you don’t have to be offensive to get a laugh. But this shift may be best exemplified by Netflix’s latest series: Sex Education.

As the title suggests, this show has two things on the brain. The first is, naturally, sex — and this show is, from the very first scene, particularly explicit. And no stone is left unturned in this exploration of puberty: we’re talking about everything from weird, unexplainable kinks to sex-related emotional baggage.

It’s funny, but also uncomfortable, extremely detailed, and even a bit gross at times. But that’s where the other word comes in: education. This show is all about making sure that both its characters and its audience are getting nothing but the facts about sexuality, and that they’re learning what mature relationships between sexually-active adults looks like. And we’re all better off for it.

Like many sex comedies, this series is all about a virgin: Otis (Asa Butterfield). But Otis is not like the protagonists from American Pie or Porky’s… he’s actually deeply uncomfortable with sexuality, and has never even been able to masturbate, let alone actually pursue a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. He does, however, have a sex therapist for a mother — played by none other than Gillian Anderson —so he probably knows more about sex than most of his sexually active peers. This gives Maeve, a classmate of his who’s the subject of much gossip, an idea.

Combining her knowledge of the school’s social structure with his sex expertise, the two open up a sex clinic of sorts. Before long, they’re being visited by students from all different cliques, and with whole different levels of experience, to answer a variety of questions that wouldn’t be brought up in your average sex-ed class.

In its first five episodes, the show makes a habit of turning typical sex comedy tropes on their head. In the premiere, for example, a student’s self-consciousness about his penis size leads to some major self-esteem issues… but not in the way you think. Meanwhile, another episode revolves around a circulated naked photo but, unlike in American Pie, this is not the subject of laughs or, even worse, celebration. Instead, the writers spend the hour exploring revenge porn and its repercussions.

The fact that the show works as both a comedy and an educational tool is its best asset. Yes, this show is funny, mining comedy from the awkwardness of the teenage years as well as just being cleverly written. But it also offers genuinely compelling, factual information about sex, all of which is implemented in the story in an organic matter. It’s also a true breath of fresh air in terms of diversity but, perhaps more importantly, is conscious of privilege.

While diversity is always welcome, even when it’s not commented on, it’s great to see that this series is interested in genuinely exploring the fact that not all sexual awakenings are created equal in a male-dominated, heteronormative society. One heartbreaking episode, for example, explores the way that high school can stifle queer students who are trying to express themselves in an environment where they are the minority. Multiple episodes explore the double standard that shames women for expressing their sexuality. And issues of race and class privilege are explored subtlety. And sexual trauma is explored with sensitivity. It’s a sex comedy like nothing I’ve seen before.

Sex Education also serves as an introduction to a terrific ensemble of young actors. Asa Butterfield may have appeared in a number of celebrated films (even Best Picture nominee Hugo), but this serves as the first real indication of his talents as an actor. He’s wonderful, exhibiting great physical comedy while also subtly creating a fully realized character. Similarly, Ncuti Gatwa turns the “gay best friend” cliche totally on its head as Eric, Otis’ right hand man who comes from a conservative family but wants desperately to break out of his small-town shell.

In smaller roles, Tanya Roberts steals scenes as a fan-fiction writing band geek, and Aimee Lou Wood kills every scene she’s in as the popular push-over who learns how to respect herself over the course of the first season. But the real star is Emma Mackey; she’s absolutely electric whenever she’s on screen, bursting with an energy reminiscent of early-2000s Keira Knightley.

It may not seem like a major change, but what Sex Education is doing on Netflix is quietly revolutionary. There isn’t room for movies about four white, male virgins who will do anything to lose their virginities anymore. While, in a perfect world, viewers would be able to their teachers for a proper instruction on sexuality, that doesn’t seem to be possible — they will learn about sex, and have their moral compass on sexual issues set, by the films and TV they watch. If Sex Education is any indication, their development is in good (very funny) hands.

Overall rating: 9 out of 10.

Sex Education is currently streaming on Netflix.


Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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