Review: Sex Education (series, 2019)

Sex Education (Netflix, 2019) Sex Education (Netflix, 2019)

Wonderful, inventive storytelling featuring kids who may still be figuring it out, but who are getting it together way better than my teenage years ever managed.

TV series aren’t normally covered on this site, but the joy that Sex Education filled me with is gushing out of me in a gooey, glorious mess.

From the writing and film-making, to the performances and art direction – every level, every facet is inventive, warm and wild. The warmth permeates the gorgeous cinematography, the retro soundtrack, and the anachronistic costume and set design (take away the cell phones, and it’s easy to believe the show is set in the ’50s), the characterisations and the themes: sex is hilarious, dysfunction is commonplace, and hangups are side-effects of our lack of kindness to ourselves and to eachother.

We should all have an aunt like Maeve. And Ola should be everyone’s grandma.

What were the meetings, the discussions, the keywords, I wonder, that series creator Laurie Nunn must have communicated to every person involved in this production, that every facet of Sex Education is so infused with creative choices which both surprise and service the story, handling that is both hilarious and sensitive, and characters who are, for the most part, kind kids getting their shit together with more emotional maturity than were typical of my, and I suspect most others’, teenage years?

Ola (Patricia Allison) should be everyone’s grandma. She’s the gold standard for emotional maturity – she knows who she is but responds to change with kindness; she loves everybody automatically but not undiscerningly; she’s vulnerable but not volatile; she’s confident but not arrogant – and this all makes her incredibly understanding of others and open to learning about herself. And she can rock a rainbow-themed outfit without irony.

We should all have an aunt like Maeve (Emma Mackey). She’s so much more than the badass with a heart of gold – she’s a kind person who recognises kindness in others, regardless of the package they appear to come in, and regardless of whether they yet understand that about themselves.

Otis (Asa Butterfield)  and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) are friendship goals. Eric’s family all ultimately display acceptance goals. Aimee, who may be the standout character (and Aimee Lou Wood the MVP of the show’s ensemble), hasn’t a malicious bone in her body, and it doesn’t take long to recognise what Maeve already sees in her. In fact, almost all the kids have ultimately wonderful qualities – and the ones who don’t are perhaps the only relatably, recognizably adolescent characters in a show set in high school.

Sex Education‘s loveliness is wrapped in gorgeous photography, rhythmic editing and a rollicking score.

The adult characters, however, don’t always receive quite the same respectful treatment. In a landscape of surprisingly, often tenderly rounded characters and tableaus, Principal Groff seems oddly Wile. E. Coyote-brand cartoonish (whether that’s the performance or the writing, it’s difficult to say); and Otis’ mother, Jean, is almost irredeemably awful (though it would be even more monstrous to be denied the fun Gillian Anderson is clearly having playing her – or her seemingly endless wardrobe of knockout jumpsuits).

If all that wasn’t enough to love, Sex Education is wrapped in gorgeous photography, rhythmic editing and a rollicking score. The yin-yang of wild creativity and above-and-beyond effort are summed up, for me, in one scene, one shot, more than any other: Otis’ bathroom masturbation scene. Someone pitched to someone else, something like: “So for this sequence, we need to physically build a really, really long toilet stall. Then we need to put a track in it for the camera. And the actor needs to be on the track too, making all the faces. And yes, we’re going to make all this, for a single shot. In a series.” The end result is hilarious and incredible, and I still can’t quite believe it exists:

While one might call the show’s aesthetic curious – period, but with mobile phones; British, but with American paradigms – Tom Nicholas calls it “weird”, and breaks down why:

Further Listening

BBC Radio | Woman's Hour
BBC Radio | Woman’s Hour | 15 Feb 2020

How do they go about finding these wonderful actors? What conversations need to take place, given the raunchy nature of the scenes, the dialogue, and the physical requirements of the performers? BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour podcast interviewed the casting directors of Sex Education, and their answers are revealing. I couldn’t find a way to embed it the podcast audio here – but you can stream it on the BBC website (the Sex Education part of the interview begins around the 23:41 mark)

Further Viewing

I can’t imagine what growing up with this show would have been like – although, raised as I was on the Pedro Almodóvar school, perhaps I can. It may not be a fair comparison, but Sex Education has reminded me I need to spend more time with the films of Almodóvar:

Sex Education also kept reminding me of Billy Elliot – certain bedroom wallpapers, daytime lighting, and even a couple of shared music cues, all of which perhaps suggest that making this connection is not accidental:

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