By Áine Kenny
Netflix’s new year offering, Sex Education, certainly filled the gap that was left in my life when E4’s much-celebrated My Mad Fat Diary ended. The smart British TV show, centred on teenagers’ trials and tribulations, has been a hit ever since Skins.
Sex Education gives a much-needed update to the genre however, mainly because it is so inclusive. There are characters of all races, sexual orientations and family backgrounds in the show.
What is even better is that they aren’t just ‘tick the box for diversity’ stereotypes, they are fleshed out and real, most notably Eric, played expertly by Ncuti Gatwa. His father’s fear for his safety (and not the usual trope of the homophobic dad) is touching and dealt with in an effective manner.
The most popular boy in school, Jackson, has two mothers, and their relationship isn’t the unrealistic, idealised type either. They fight like a normal couple, and Jackson is not the typical pretty boy jock either. He has real mental health issues. He also isn’t mean. He does make the mistake of paying Otis for advice on how to ask Maeve out, but when things don’t work out between them, he still tries to ensure she isn’t expelled, despite the fact she breaks his heart.
The two standout characters, for me, have to be Otis and his mother Jean, played by Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson respectively. You may remember Otis from his role in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he hasn’t changed that much. He still has those incredibly piercing blue eyes, which he uses to play the awkward Otis excellently. Anderson excels as the cool but incredibly intrusive Jean, and while we are angry at how much she butts in to Otis’ life; we know she has good intentions.
The subject matter of the show is teens and their various sexual and romantic escapades. While this isn’t necessarily an original idea, showrunner Laurie Nunn’s take on the subject is.
By virtue of Otis’ mother being a sex and relationship therapist, he is very well versed in therapy talk and how to have a fulfilling relationship (except when it comes to his own life). Otis and Maeve, a troubled but brilliant classmate, team up to start a sex therapy business in school.
While this is done for comedic effect, they also deal with some real issues: male pressure to perform, body image, revenge porn, and females not knowing their own body or what pleasures them.
A point that the show is making is that these sorts of wellbeing issues are not discussed in the classroom, and maybe they should be. Young people get into dreadful and sometimes abusive relationships because they do not have the tools to navigate this new part of their life. Otis gives his classmates these tools, and lets them become self-aware of their own issues. Although, I have to admit handing out therapy off the books when you’re unqualified is definitely unethical.
The show also deals with the ‘taboo’ subject of abortion. Usually in most TV shows, when women characters become pregnant, they decide to keep the child even though this will result in their lives taking a direction they are not prepared for. Then the pregnancy and subsequent child turn into a mere plot device for the show. This is not a proper portrayal of women facing crisis pregnancy.
This is especially true in the later seasons of Gilmore Girls when Lane and Sookie both become pregnant due to failed contraception, and despite actively not wanting (anymore) children, the showrunners never got the characters to discuss any alternative options on screen.
Thankfully, this is not a direction that Sex Education goes down. Maeve decides that abortion is the best option for her, considering she can’t afford rent, is still in school with a potentially promising future ahead of her, and has no family support.
We see her go into the clinic, and meet other women who are there for the procedure, including an older woman who already has children. After Maeve comes out, she is not traumatised by her choice, and she doesn’t break down in later episodes from the shame or guilt that many anti-abortion activists would claim women suffer from. This is a far more accurate portrayal of women’s lives, considering the vast majority of women do not regret getting an abortion.
Another thing that makes this show so great is the way it is filmed and the soundtrack. When I first started watching the show, I thought it was set in the 1980’s. The houses, especially the Groff’s, are all indicative of that era, with the open spaces and wood panelling.
Otis wakes up to a Sony alarm clock every day, and everyone wears flared trousers and bright, clashing patterns. But it is actually set in the present day. The cast have said that the show’s stylistics are an ode to John Hughes’ films. Plus the killer soundtrack just adds to it!