Netflix's latest comedy outing is really unlike anything else on the streaming service, and that's saying something considering just how many originals are currently available. Sex Education is chock full of actors from across the pond and tackles the topic of teen sex in such graphic detail that it could never air on broadcast or even basic cable TV. That said, the show is surprisingly sweet and delivers a whole bunch of laughs, and the cast delivers on the dynamite material.
Asa Butterfield stars as Otis Thompson, a teenager who can't seem to masturbate no matter what he tries. (Yes, really.) His mom Jean (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist who encourages her son, offering condoms, movie nights, and a lot of unsolicited advice on sex. Otis' best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is no more popular than Otis. Eric is one of only two gay students at their school, and the other is on a very different social tier.
When a very well-endowed student by the name of Adam (Connor Swindells) has his sexual issues resolved via a chat with Otis, brilliant bad girl Maeve (Emma Mackey) decides she and Otis need to start up a sex therapy business in their school. So, normal teenage shenanigans, right? Throw in drinking, parties, smart phones, and a whole lot of sex in the United Kingdom, and Sex Education has a lot going on.
Created by Laurie Nunn, Sex Education is a show that could have been nothing more than a whole lot of sex jokes, visual gags, and nudity. Admittedly, there are a lot of sex jokes, the show opens up with nudity and continues to deliver, and the Thompson house alone is so full of phallic objects that viewers would probably have to rewatch a few times to catch them all. Still, there's a surprising amount of heart packed in among all of the sex, and jokes that could have been cheap are largely sweet.
For me, the key to what makes Sex Education successful as a comedy is the fact that none of the key characters can be classified as comic relief. Eric could have been turned into a stereotypical best friend, but he was given layers of his own that ground him and make him feel like a real character. Maeve is so much more than just a bad girl, and her complexities make her compelling.
As for Otis... well, Otis could have been a walking punchline due to his virginity and seemingly inexplicable inability to masturbate -- which I emphasize in this review in honor of how frequently it's repeated on the show -- when the majority of his classmates are thinking about, talking about, or having sex at every opportunity.
Instead, the show delves into his issues and why he is the way that he is, and the laughs come from how he interacts with others rather than at his expense. Viewers aren't really asked to laugh at Otis but rather at his situation. After all, he does have a sex therapist for a mother and lives in a house filled with sexual art.
Sex Education also handles Jean with a deft hand. Instead of just creating a character who makes situations awkward by inserting sex into every conversation, the show presents a character who truly wants to help and is good at her job, even if she's not the greatest at boundaries with the people around her who aren't her patients. She truly loves her son, and there's something conventionally maternal about her that viewers will be able to relate on some level, even if most of the audience doesn't live with a sex therapist.
At this point, I have to mention the cast. I firmly believe Sex Education wouldn't have the heart and complexity that it does if the cast was any less talented. As longtime fan of The X-Files, I was expecting to be a huge fan of Gillian Anderson as Jean, and I was not disappointed. The character could have been a caricature if she didn't made sure that Jean is more than just her job as a sex therapist. She's a mom and a woman and somebody who fundamentally wants to help others without making a situation about herself.
I'll admit that I was a bit nervous about Asa Butterfield as lead actor. Although 21-years-old, Butterfield's breakout role was Hugo back in 2011, and I'll confess to first seeing him back when he was a young Mordred on Merlin. Viewers coming into Sex Education may remember him more from his projects as a child, and from that perspective, it's shocking to see him talk about sex and masturbation and adult relationships. Still, he's great in the role, and he embodies it in a way that I was able to forget Butterfield the child star and focus on Butterfield as Otis.
Emma Mackey was a standout as Maeve. The character is difficult to describe largely because of how much Mackey brings to the role. Maeve is a bad girl who likes to smoke and sleep with a hot guy and make some money by starting a sex therapy business with her socially awkward classmate, but she's also scared and uncertain and determined to do what she has to. She's a teenage girl who has to be an adult in many ways, and she doesn't always handle it well. Mackey brings Maeve to life in a way that Otis' confused feelings about her make sense.
All in all, Sex Education is eight hours of well-acted television with plenty of humor and heart. That said, don't confuse a plethora of heart with an absence of raunch. There absolutely is a lot of sex, talk about sex, a fair amount of nudity, and the serious misuse of bananas at a house party. It's not what I'd call a highbrow show, but it's an engaging and entertaining way to watch television. Just maybe don't watch it with your parents and/or kids in the room!
All eight episodes of Sex Education are available streaming on Netflix starting Friday, January 11 at 12:01 a.m. PT. For more of what you can find streaming in the not-too-distant future, swing by our Netflix premiere guide. If you're not always in the mood for streaming, our midseason TV premiere schedule can help you find some broadcast and cable options as well.