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High school is hard enough to navigate for the typical teenager—it’s even more difficult when your mother is a sex therapist who isn’t afraid to discuss impotence with your classmates.
DIRECTOR: Kate Herron, Ben Taylor
An awkward 16-year-old boy and a witty bad girl start an underground sex clinic at their high school, capitalizing on their peers’ coital concerns.
Netflix original series Sex Education tells the story of socially awkward 16-year-old Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), who begins an underground sex clinic with witty bad-girl Maeve (Emma Mackey) at their high school. They capitalize on their peers’ coital concerns. Show creator Laurie Nunn calls the series a “British love-letter to American high-school TV shows,” and tackles the modern-day growing pains of puberty in a bluntly tragic—yet hilarious, at times—manner.
With jocks, popular girls, and geeks galore, Sex Education certainly does seem like an homage to the stereotypical American TV drama. But it’s not. Because of its sincerity, compelling writing, and heart, the series stands out against American teen series it stands alongside on Netflix, like Riverdale or Insatiable. (If you’re an adult watching Sex Education, you’ll find yourself cringing a lot less, too.) Every moment in Sex Education feels authentic and carefully developed.
Sex Education is both the Skins (that British drama you know you binged in high school) for Gen Z and a public service announcement for inclusive sexual education. The series tackles everything—masturbation, impotence, abortion, pubic lice, sex, and more—in a frank and often graphic way. It’s also plenty inclusive when it comes to LGBTQ representation. And while it might seem radical to compare it to the teen shows of yesterday, from One Tree Hill to Degrassi: The Next Generation, it refreshingly removes the stigma from therapy for teens and their parents alike. It’s also progressive in the way it urges men to see women as people and not merely objects of desire.
In the second episode, Maeve tells her love interest Jackson (Kedar Williams Stirling) that her “thing” is “complex female characters,” and that statement becomes emblematic of the smart, multi-dimensional character development of the entire cast. Maeve is more than just the sassy punk who’s the “best kind of cool because no one knows it yet”; as a sex therapist, Otis avoids his own sexual phobias to focus on the issues of his peers; Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) might be gay, but Sex Education gives him other interests and plot points; even all-star swimmer Jackson is a different person when he takes his swimsuit off. Sex Education succeeds at picking apart stereotypes and shows its viewers a bracing sexually and racially diverse picture of high school.
Among all the relationships developed throughout the first season, Otis and Eric’s friendship is a major highlight. When he’s not busy getting caught up in his own problems, Otis is supportive of Eric. Every year for Eric’s birthday, for example, Otis accompanies Eric to a screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch—and even dresses as Hedwig in full makeup—so that Eric can safely celebrate who he truly is. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to see a straight male show up for his gay best friend in such a visible manner, but knowing the prominence of male fragility in culture it’s a meaningful statement.
The series manages to also exist outside of time, which might seem confusing. Parents take dance photos with film cameras and yet Pornhub exists and everyone texts on their iPhones. Once viewers get past some of those oddities, the statement Nunn tries to make becomes a lot clearer: These aren’t issues that only affect teens in 2019—these issues transcend time. It doesn’t matter what year Sex Education takes place in; it could take place in any decade and speak to that generation’s youth.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, gangster movies, Westerns, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Tess Cagle is a reporter who focuses on politics, lifestyle, and streaming entertainment. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman, Damn Joan, and Community Impact Newspaper. She’s also a portrait, events, and live music photographer in Central Texas.