Poor Otis can’t masturbate. It should be simple — he’s a high school boy, after all — but he’s repulsed by the mere idea of it. What he can do is talk to teens about their sexual hang-ups, using techniques he’s observed from his sex-therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson). Of course, Mom’s pathological openness about coitus is likely why Otis (Asa Butterfield) can’t hoist his own petard — but who says growing up is supposed to be easy?
A sweet, progressive British dramedy from newcomer Laurie Nunn, Sex Education (premiering Friday on Netflix) blends teen sex-romp tropes with a refreshing level of empathy. While there’s plenty of sexploitation humor — prepare for close-ups of human nether regions and a remarkable number of phalluses — the show is focused on how its teen characters learn to respect each other, and themselves.
Sex Education begins on the first day of school, and though Otis would prefer to fade into the crowd at Moordale Secondary, his best friend Eric (played with ebullient charm by Ncuti Gatwa) has one goal: to move up the social and sexual food chain. What Eric doesn’t know is that sex is proving problematic for many students, including well-endowed bully Adam (Connor Swindells). After Otis gives Adam some impromptu advice about his performance anxiety, misunderstood bad girl Maeve (Emma Mackey) persuades Otis to open a de facto sex-therapy clinic at school.
Otis is good at helping his peers with their intimacy problems, whether it’s a lesbian couple having terrible sex or a girl with an overactive gag reflex. Butterfield brings an appealing authenticity to both sides of Otis’ personality — the awkward geek and the mature therapist — and his scenes with Gatwa brim with the goofy chemistry of boyhood best mates. As Otis’s quietly meddlesome mom Jean, Anderson exudes confident sexuality while allowing the character her own insecurities and vulnerabilities.The series also showcases Anderson’s brilliant yet under-appreciated comedic skills; she can transform even the simplest dialogue (e.g. “Darling, you’re wearing a hat”) into a multilayered punchline.
But really, Sex Education belongs to the kids. It may not be the first show to portray teens as real people, but its commitment to considerate intercourse (in both senses of the word) between young men and women is rare. “What makes you feel like you need to give your boyfriend b— jobs?” Otis asks one girl. To a client who finds her body “disgusting,” he says, “If you don’t like yourself, how are you supposed to believe that [your boyfriend] does?” It should be noted that most of the series is written by Nunn and/or other female writers, so yes, Otis could be considered an idealized version of male enlightenment — a beacon of Positive Masculinity who’ll render toxic dudes extinct. To that I say, it’s about bloody time. Grade: A-