People have plenty of opinions as to whether the depiction of teen sex on TV is moral enough or whether it’s responsible enough. There’s less talk about whether it’s bad enough. Too often it’s airbrushed and idealized, rather than a fumbling, awkward, slapstick process of trial and eros.
There is, as the title advertises, plenty of sex in “Sex Education,” the sweet and raunchily funny British teen comedy arriving Friday on Netflix. But the most engaging thing about it is the “education” part. Like its middle-school American counterpart, “Big Mouth,” “Sex Education” explores sex as a learning experience about who you are, what you want and how you relate to other people.
Its unlikely educator is Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), an awkward, inexperienced teenager. His mother, Jean (a wonderfully deadpan Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist, with frank manner and a limited sense of personal boundaries. She explains sex to a very young Otis in a flashback thus: “Intercourse can be wonderful. But it can also cause tremendous pain. And if you’re not careful, sex can destroy lives.”
You’ve heard the line about the cobbler’s children not having shoes? Otis is fixed fine for footwear. But he can’t masturbate. His adolescent anxiety about his body (he’s not crazy about erections, either) is intensified by the constant T.M.I. factor of living with an oversharing parent in a house with erotic art on the walls and exotic implements in the drawers.
But Otis has picked up a lot through osmosis. When he talks a classmate through an uncomfortable sex issue (Viagra is involved), his friend and secret crush, Maeve (Emma Mackey), convinces him to set up a side gig as a “sex and relationship therapist” for his classmates. Those who can’t do it, teach.
It’s a far-fetched premise, as even Otis’s clients admit, but living with Jean has given him a specific skill set and perceptiveness, and somehow he and the show sell it. (“It’s weird,” a popular boy tells him. “You’re like my age, but wise. You’re like my mum in a little man’s body.”)
The series strains at first to establish the procedural format: a little bit “Masters of Sex,” a little bit “Doogie Howser, XXX.” But it blooms, over eight episodes, into a smart, sensitive look at teens finding their place and figuring out the owner’s manuals for their bodies.
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The creator, Laurie Nunn, has managed to make a teen sex comedy I haven’t quite seen before — timely but not hamfistedly topical, feminist, with a refreshing lack of angst about its subject. Sex, in this show, isn’t an “issue” or a problem or a titillating lure: It’s an aspect of health.
So yes, there are stories about S.T.D.s and revenge porn, and a remarkable, perceptive abortion subplot in the third episode. But there are also story lines about fantasy and sexual compatibility and the gap between pornified expectations and mundane reality. Like Otis, the series is empathetic and nonjudgmental.
It’s also generous in scope. Past teen comedies tended to be about the desires of male virgins like Otis and their struggles to get laid. “Sex Education” centers and decenters Otis; he’s the protagonist but more comfortable observing and listening, as a supporting player in others’ stories.
One of the strongest arcs belongs to Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), his gay best friend, with whom Otis has an annual date to dress up in drag and watch “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Eric, exuberant but naïve, isn’t just discovering his sexuality but learning what he likes and how to present himself in the world. There’s a great small moment where Eric, who is black, admires the “fierce” nail polish on an older black man who cheerfully advises him, “Stick to the jewel tones.”
Dealing with homophobia is part of Eric’s journey, but not the sum of it. He’s picked on at school, not for being gay but for being a band geek who once got a public erection, earning him the nickname “Tromboner.” (An unfair label; he plays the French horn.)
“Sex Education” has a knack for introducing characters as stereotypes, then complicating them: jocks have anxieties; nerds have lusts; mean girls and bullies have sympathetic backgrounds. Maeve, in particular, is exquisitely drawn — she’s smart, tough and outcast both for being poor and for being a girl who has sex and likes it.
“Sex Education,” unafraid to have fun and be funny, is less like its stark British predecessor “Skins” than like a well-executed American teen dramedy on CW. The big difference, of course, is its streaming-TV freedom to be as graphic as it wants to be — and it wants to be, from its opening seconds.
Like “Big Mouth,” “Sex Education” is a birds-and-bees comedy I’d endorse for both teenagers and parents of teenagers, but fair warning: If your sense of boundaries is as expansive as Jean’s, you could enjoy it together. If you’re more like Otis, I’d suggest watching separately.
Streaming on Netflix on Friday
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