Netflix's recent release is a teenage dramedy fit for this generation
Sex Education is one of those shows that Netflix promotes for weeks at the top of its home page, while you scroll past, wondering why they keep pushing this drivel on you, until you finally cave. Next thing you know, you are telling everyone in your life that it is essential they watch it. As far as ingredients needed for the perfect TV show go, Gillian Anderson, 1980s aesthetics and a black gay lead are really the makings of something incredible, and Netflix didn’t let its viewers down.
Although it appears to be an airy teen dramedy, Sex Education breaks a number of taboos even in its first episode. It is a show that tackles “issues” in the same way the likes of Glee or Skins did, but Sex Education handles them in a completely different way. Instead of making you feel like you’re sat watching a video made for the PSHE curriculum, the show humanises all of the shitty things that can destroy you as a high schooler, and refrains from ending each storyline with it tied in a perfect bow, with everyone getting their happy endings.
The show is an ode to sex positivity, whether in the form of Jean, a mother, being utterly unashamed about her desires, or Otis prescribing Aimee a wank, so she can finally have sex that is fun for her too. There have been a recent influx of TV shows highlighting the hormone fuelled sexuality of the teenage years, but Sex Education handles the actual sex in a surprising way. For a show that opens on a very uncensored sex scene between two 17 year olds, at no point does the series feel voyueristic or tacky. While sex is very much the central element of the show, the focus is instead on the emotional and personal factors that go into intimacy.
Feminism is woven throughout the show, yet is never preachy. The viewers are given, in Maeve’s words herself, complex female characters, who at no point fall into the bitch/airhead/manic pixie dream girl tropes that they could. Instead, we get scenes of ultimate cattiness, as one would expect in high school, alongside scenes of the ultimate sisterhood. I doubt any of the audience expected they would ever get choked up at a scene involving people yelling about vaginas in a school assembly, but Sex Education just throws these things at its viewers. The show places its female characters at the forefront, and through them, explores every aspect of being a teenage girl.
The star of the series is undeniably Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong. Outdoing Kurt Hummel as TV’s gayest gay, Eric immediately becomes a favourite character, and the acting on the part of Gatwa is spectacular. Eric is absolutely unashamed of who he is, but that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of how vulnerable that makes him. The series is overwhelmingly heartwarming and hopeful, but almost every scene that gets you choked up centres on Eric. His relationship with his father is positive but seemingly constantly at breaking point. Their scene in front of the school before Eric enters the school dance in one of the most unapologetically black and gay outfits, complete with a glitter lip and a hair wrap, is truly one of the most compelling, accurate and heartbreaking depictions of immigrant parents TV has given us. Usually at that point we would’ve seen the tropey angry black father telling his son he didn't risk so much for him to disobey God like this, that he was embarrassing the family and he shouldn't come home, etc etc. Instead we saw a vulnerable black man who has gone through a huge amount to protect his family as much as he could, and he was now fearful that his son was choosing to leave that protective bubble in such an ostentatious way.
Yet, while the show handles the storyline of being gay and a minority so well, it lets down its LGBTQ+ viewers with its final twist. While the world is finally realising that telling young girls boys are being mean to them because they fancy them is setting girls up with the wrong messages about what they should tolerate from men, it seems gay teens on TV have not yet been awarded that dignity. Once again viewers are given the surprise twist of the originally “homophobic” bully just being a repressed gay/bisexual man himself. We again have to sit through the strange, forced kiss that in reality would in no way be positive for someone who has suffered at the hands of the person kissing them, and suddenly, Adam is reformed and the audience is expected to understand why he was so horrible to Eric for so long. The repressed homophobe has got to be one of the most tired tropes on TV, and yet, it is still being dragged out as a redemption arc for bullies. In reality, this trope can be heavily damaging, and at the end of the day Eric deserved better than the partnership he was dealt. That being said, qudos has to be given, as the scene in the science lab where the two boys brush their fingers against each other is one of the most intimate and touching scenes in the whole show.
All in all Sex Education is very much the high school show for this generation; a show about hope, things getting better, and the importance of wanking.