As much as I love the concept of Gillian Anderson playing a kooky sex therapist, Netflix’s new(-ish) comedy series Sex Education takes a few episodes to figure out what kind of show it wants to be.
For one thing, although Anderson is the biggest name in the cast, she’s just a supporting player who rarely gets enough screen time. Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) is the show’s actual lead. He’s fine in the role and I have nothing against Butterfield as a performer, but his character is by far the less interesting of the two.
It’s difficult for me to even describe the premise of the show without framing it around Anderson’s character. Sporting a British accent (the series is set in the UK), she plays Jean Milburn, a free-spirited sex therapist with some unconventional ideas about child-raising. Butterfield is her teenage son, Otis, who is deeply embarrassed by his mom. Most teenagers could probably say the same, but Otis has plenty of good reason. Jean has no boundaries whatsoever, and has exposed her son to all the gritty details of her work – and her own love life – since a young age that most observers would consider inappropriate.
Rather than free her son from the shackles of sexual repression, as Jean probably believes is her goal, her behavior has had quite the opposite effect. Otis doesn’t want to be liberated in any way. Not only is he still a virgin, he’s terrified of sex, to the point that even the idea of masturbation repulses him. The more his meddling mother tries to pull him out of his shell, the more he retreats inside it.
For as much as Otis rejects his mother’s profession, however, he has also absorbed a lot of her knowledge over the years. This works to his benefit when a trailer trash rebel named Maeve (Emma Mackey) ropes him into a business arrangement whereby he will secretly provide counseling to other teens at their school who, due to ignorance, naivete or just general teenage stupidity, need help navigating the path to sexual adulthood. All the while, Otis himself fights against that same transition.
Season Verdict / Grade: B
I came very close to giving up on Sex Education early. While the premise is clever and Gillian Anderson is very funny in her underutilized role, little else about the series’ first couple episodes resembles any sort of world I recognize. None of the characters act like actual human beings. Their behavior and motivations are completely baffling, even in comedy terms. The school setting makes no sense in relation to any school that has ever existed in reality. The teachers show hardcore sex material in class, students openly fuck in plain view of everyone on the quad, and the school bully whips out his oversized cock to flash the entire student body with no repercussions.
Even as a riff on teen movies of the 1980s (which are frequently referenced), the tone in those first two episodes tries too hard to be quirky and zany. Otis’ only friend is a flamboyant gay stereotype seemingly modeled after Meschach Taylor in Mannequin. Anderson’s character is a man-eater who parades a constant stream of one-night-stands in and out of the house. Meanwhile, the teens at Otis’ high school, including and especially Otis himself, all seem to suffer from decidedly middle-aged sexual hang-ups and inadequacies that would never afflict kids their age. (Seriously, never in the history of the human species has any adolescent boy had trouble getting an erection.) In short, nothing about the setting and nothing the characters do make any sense.
Fortunately, the show turns a corner with the third episode, which is much less broadly comedic and broaches topics that might actually affect teenagers (specifically, pregnancy and abortion in that one). From that point forward, the series settles into a more effective balance of comedy and drama, and starts serving its characters better. Otis’ mom, in particular, tones down her antics and is given a real storyline with some emotional stakes. As the troubled yet resilient Maeve, Emma Mackey is a real breakout talent certain to go on to bigger things. Supporting player Aimee Lou Wood also has a very appealing comic energy.
Over the course of the season’s back half, I became invested in most of the characters and cared what happened to them. I just wish the series had started off on stronger footing. I also think the one-hour episodes are a little long for a comedy and the show would probably work better at a half-hour.
The series’ eight-episode first season debuted on January 19th. Netflix has confirmed that a second season is in the works.