Netflix's "Sex Education" is one of the recent streaming releases to gain a ton of traction upon release, and unlike "Bird Box," this British TV series about high school relationships actually deserves all the hype it's getting. Netflix is no stranger to the classic coming-of-age story (as evidenced by "Stranger Things") and has dabbled quite a bit in shows about high school drama. But if we're using "The Kissing Booth" and "13 Reasons Why" as our sample size, there's a glaring issue with the way teens are being represented.
Taking a look behind the relatably flawed characters and whimsical environment of "Sex Education," there's an even more unique story to be told: how a raunchy British comedy about sex transcends itself and arguably holds one of the best representation of teen struggles to date.
The pressure is real.
"Sex Education" depicts a British school where just about every student is constantly worrying about their sex life or their lack of it.
The main character Otis is sexually repressed and struggling to break his "virgin" status, making it all the more hilarious when he starts providing sex therapy sessions for his classmates. Another character, Jackson, is the athlete star and golden-boy of the school, yet it's shown he's crumbling from the pressure applied by his parents.
While the sex-obsessed environment is undeniably over-the-top and exaggerated for comedic effect, its the exploration of these high school pressures that makes "Sex Education" valuable. It's not just the pressure to gain sexual experience, but also to please your friends and family, avoid ridicule and find your identity all at the same time.
The style of "Sex Education" is loud and vibrant, but the show's not at all glamorous. The main character Otis is an awkward social outcast who abandons his friend to pursue his love interest. Maeve, his friend and crush, is a jaded victim of high school ridicule who insults and intimidates others. Imperfection is everywhere in the show, defining antagonistic characters while making the protagonists look and act like real people.
There's no white knight championing against bullying like Clay in "13 Reasons Why," and there's definitely no perfect love interest. In the real world, flawed people can be lovable, just like good people can do rotten things.
The breakout cast is diverse and phenomenal.
First and foremost, congratulations to Asa Butterfield for reminding me he exists after "Hugo" and "Ender's Game." The 21-year-old actor (I can't believe it either) kills it as Otis Milburn, the sexually inexperienced teen who becomes a sex guru for his hormone-driven classmates.
The true breakout performances, though, come from fairly inexperienced young actors Ncuti Gatwa and Emma Mackey, who play Otis' partners in crime, Eric and Maeve respectfully. Eric is an openly gay kid struggling to embrace his self-expression, while Maeve is a social pariah who's continuously slut-shamed by the popular crowd. Both characters are unique and lovable in their own ways, but they're both examples of the diverse motley crew of characters that "Sex Education" carries.
In addition to its cultural diversity, the show also includes many examples of LGBT+ representation, which is incredibly important in a show that explores sexuality so deeply.
It tackles the stigmas around sex.
It's no secret that Sex Ed in public high school is largely ineffective, and I'd argue a large reason for that is the looming pressure to keep sexual matters entirely private. Sex is often dramatized as some kind of life-changing mortal sin, and other times, it's just not mentioned at all.
"Sex Education" ditches the drama (mostly) and depicts some graphic sex scenes in an extremely casual way. It's never gratuitous or exploitative; in fact, the show often manages to find comedy in the awkwardness of it all. The show's plot hinges on sex as a recurring theme, meaning the s-word is said more times than I can count, per episode. As a result, sex comes across not as a taboo subject of conversation but as another part of life worth discussing.
It's not pretty.
Remember when I said the show has some graphic scenes? A lot of them are fleeting but incredibly hard to watch.
"Sex Education" is full of not-so-pretty portrayals of teen sex life, mostly in the form of awkward, painful attempts at sexual intimacy. With Otis serving as a sex guru for his peers, he, and by proxy we, are subjected to hear countless testimonies of sexual dysfunction and other disturbing issues. That's where the portrayal of teen sex life in "Sex Education" distances itself from that of any other show on TV.
There's no CW "Riverdale" steamy fantasy nonsense, but instead an honest, disgusting depiction of all the worst that could happen to a kid in high school. And because of all that honesty, the show is refreshingly relatable and a charming series to put next on your Netflix binging queue.