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Sex Education review: Netflix pops 2019’s cherry with its best show in months

Jan 14, 2019

Sex Education

Cast - Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa
Rating - 4.5/5
A few hundred kilometres outside Delhi, as you take the highways, you’ll begin to notice curious signages on the side of the roads. The older ones are hand-painted, while the more expensive signs are printed and presented proudly on billboards. Some of them feature the face of an unremarkable-looking middle-aged man. But all of them - the cruddy old ones, days away from being washed away by the rain, and the plasticky new banners, advertise one thing -- sex therapy.

Clinics such as these are common not only in small towns but also in large cities, where they operate, seemingly unaffected, by the more modern and conventional ones. Take a stroll down the gullies of Old Delhi and you’ll find several of these ‘hakim’ shops, with hennaed old men bent over counters, selling potions and promises. These clinics cater to an altogether different clientele, certainly not the woke big city crowd that believes in dealing with their bedroom problems through conversation and consultancy.

But regardless of the who the patient is, they are united by one dominant emotion: shame. And this is the central theme of the distractingly titled new Netflix series, Sex Education.

Gillian Anderson plays a ‘man-eater’ sex therapist who, with her teenage son, lives in an idyllic hillside bungalow at the corner of a quaint English village. Her son, Otis, is the sort of kid who has the ability to make even ‘French unsexy’ - awkward, repressed (not in a bad way) and endearingly shy. He is perfectly happy spending his days being left alone, unnoticed in the corner. What sets Otis apart from other kids his age - and indeed, this is what distinguishes Sex Education from other raunchy teen comedies - is that his life doesn’t revolve around the need to get laid. Otis, played by Hugo’s Asa Butterfield, would much rather goof around with his best friend, Eric, who is, conservatively speaking, Kinsey-6 gay.

But when he, like so many sensitive romantic heroes before him, meets Maeve, a street-smart, unattainable outsider, Otis experiences an awakening. Maeve has been ‘unlucky in the family department’, left to fend for herself by an absentee father and an addict mother. In the need for a quick buck, she convinces Otis to put his superior knowledge of sex to use in the place where it is needed the most: high school.

And thus begins a rather unconventional business. Maeve handles the monetary side of things, and Otis sets up his consultancy everywhere from the out-of-bounds asbestos-infested bathroom, to the bleachers and the chemistry lab. Kids of all shapes and sizes - each of them frighteningly vulnerable - approach him with questions they can’t have answered anywhere else.

A lesser show would have been perfectly content in expanding on this terrific premise, patting itself on the back with each new episode, as Otis tackled the problem-of-the-week. But keeping with the tradition of the best sex comedies, Sex Education reveals itself to be so much more than the unfortunate labels its genre has been bound by. It is a wonderfully heartfelt series, a sweeping romantic comedy, in which even the most tertiary of characters are written with warmth.

As Otis and Maeve struggle to understand their feelings for each other - each of them reacts in different, yet relatable ways - the stories of supporting characters are fleshed out. Eric fights prejudice and hatred with pride, even when the cruel world knocks him down; the school bully, Adam, struggles to live up to his father, the school principal’s standards; and the trio of mean girls reveal internal complexes. Important themes such as gender politics, religion, feminism and identity are touched upon - but never at the expense of the show’s sweetly raunchy tone.

It’s been rated 18+, which by Netflix’s barometer of kinkiness is saying something. But Sex Education is a worthy addition to this niche genre, arriving in what has become a second wave of great teen comedies, after Judd Apatow’s streak of success about a decade ago.But Sex Education is really a coming-of-age story. But what sets it apart is its delicate balance of outward American brazenness and very dry, very British humour.

Emma Mackey, as Maeve, is a revelation; perhaps the best performance by a young British actress I’ve seen since I discovered Florence Pugh. She’s alluring yet distant, pragmatic yet emotional, whip-smart yet foolishly in love. An early episode in which she is compelled to undergo a medical procedure (alone) is one of the best episodes of television in many, many months. And it’s a wonderful exhibition of Mackey’s staggering talents.

It should also be noted, and appreciated, that Sex Education is largely put together by a female team - it has been created and predominantly written by women, and half of its eight episodes have a female director.

It was perhaps necessary to advertise Sex Education in the manner that it was, but once the crowds have been pulled in, they will discover a show with tremendous depth; a cracking way to pop 2019’s cherry.

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