I don’t feel like writing a long analytical piece about the recently concluded Netflix series Sex Education, so this is going to be mainly uncritical squee. It’s four series of eight episodes each about teenagers at school in a very fictional English town (where numerous aspects of the set-up bear little relationship to the English education system or indeed to British culture generally). The lead character is Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) whose gay best friend Eric (incoming star of Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa) encourages him to set up a sex education clinic at school, in collaboration with wild-but-smart girl Maeve (Emma Mackey). Gillian Anderson puts in a star turn as Otis’s mother Jean, who actually is a sex therapist. All of them have romantic troughs and peaks, as does the extensive supporting cast.
We decided to watch it to get acquainted with Ncuti Gatwa in advance of his appearance on Doctor Who, and really we were not disappointed. Anne argues that the entire series should be treated as speculative fiction anyway, because it’s obviously happening in a parallel Britain where schools are largely privately funded, and where various other implausible things happen in terms of the social context. So you have to suspend your disbelief a little. But once you do, you are swept into a beautifully constructed and often vey funny world of characterisation, with most of the characters following their own arcs, some of them getting to surprising places. Ncuti Gatwa stands out but does not dominate as Eric.
The other two characters who always drew the eye were Emma Rainey as Maeve and Aimee Lou Gibbs as her blonde friend Aimee (presumably it was not planned that actor and character would have the same name). The last season has a particularly effective episode revolving around a funeral which gets superb performances from both (and they are both generally very good).
Just as important as the plot, in times where sexual minorities are being demonised by people including the British Prime Minister, the ethos of the show is empowering and liberating. The actual sex advice given is sound and sensible, and the repressed authority figures get their comeuppance. There’s decent representation of disability too. Perhaps the lack of racism encountered by the non-white characters is a little too good to be true. There’s a very powerful scene at the end of the second season where Aimee’s friends join her in solidarity on the school bus, after she has spent several episodes dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault.
This episode, the seventh of Season 2, is the top-rated on IMDB and I think justifiably so. The second-highest rated is the fifth episode of series 3, where Otis and Maeve get stranded together during a school trip to France.
I would enter one mild note of annoyance. Lily, played by Tanya Reynolds, is the science fiction fan in the story. I felt that her portrayal tipped a bit more into mockery than was necessary. Most sf fans don’t actually believe, as Lily apparently does, that aliens are about to land. It’s a flaw in an otherwise very enjoyable show. (And she gets mercilessly written out at the end of the third season.)
That aside, I recommend it with no other reservations, and I’ve left out a lot of the good stuff here – the rotating head teachers, Gillian Anderson’s character’s arc, Maeve’s self-discovery in America, the surprisingly positive portrayal of Christianity in Eric’s family. You’ve just about got time to get through all 32 episodes before the era of Ncuti Gatwa’s as the Fifteenth Doctor begins.