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A Frank and Funny Look at 'Sex Education'
January 11, 2019  | By David Hinckley

If you ever thought that all high school kids think about is sex, the first couple of episodes of the new Netflix series Sex Education will strongly suggest you were right.

Sex Education, an eight-part British drama that becomes available Friday, is not a show most parents would want to watch with their kids, because there is no doubt the average parent would wind up seriously embarrassed.

As it goes along, though, it becomes a different show, or rather it starts paying a little more attention to the parts of adolescent life that don’t involve taking off someone else’s clothes.

Otis Thompson (Asa Butterfield) is your basic insecure high school student who is nearly invisible to his peers.

Otis likes it that way, because he’s afraid every day that someone is going to find out his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist.

The problem is that Jean has immersed herself in her work. The house is decorated with pictures from the Kama Sutra, copies of which lie randomly on the tables. The TV is loaded with sex DVDs, and Jean makes videos graphically explaining sex techniques.

Jean also practices what she preaches to her patients since she seems to entertain a different younger man every night. Perhaps she writes them off as a business expense.

In any case, Otis has reluctantly become an expert on sex, but despite a healthy abundance of teenage hormones, he seems unable to practice it, in any form.

That’s not a problem for most of the rest of the class at Moorhead secondary school, where everyone talks about sex and some of the students practice it on the lawn while they’re waiting for class to start.

Even by real-life standards of teen sexual conduct, this feels like a bit of hyper-reality, which is why Sex Education, in its early stages, seems to be setting us up for a movie-style teen sex comedy.

And sure enough, people burst into rooms at awkward moments to catch other people doing awkward things, and teenagers who are more eager than experienced get some things wrong. Furthermore, Sex Education portrays much of this in a graphic manner, complemented by explicit language, albeit often spoken playfully.

Parts of Sex Education are reminiscent of scenes from Love, Actually, with perhaps a hint of Glee.

Otis has one close friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), who has outed himself and suffers a few of the consequences. He’s rather cheerful, though, and good for sharp observations on what’s happening around them.

The drama kicks into a higher gear after we meet Adam (Connor Swindells), who at first seems to be the classic handsome, two-dimensional, entitled bully. He ends up in both Otis’s and Eric’s lives through a storyline that’s in one way familiar and in another way quite singular.

At the same time, Otis runs into Maeve (Emma Mackey), who’s trying to escape her trailer-park roots. She’s got more than enough brains. She just has a hard time smoothing down the rough edges.  

She and Adam could both slide easily into a sitcom. That isn’t the direction in which Sex Education takes them.

Maeve gets involved with Otis by talking him into starting a sex therapy clinic for students. Maeve knows everyone’s crazy problems, and Otis has absorbed from his mother some ideas on how to mitigate them.

Okay, it’s a little bit of a stretch to think high school students would pay money to start confiding their sexual problems to the weird quiet kid in the corner. But if you can buy some part of that premise, Sex Education parlays it into a number of surprisingly poignant dramas.

The sex talk doesn’t stop, nor do the fairly explicit scenes of high school kids trying to figure out how to apply all that talk. Parents still may want to let the kids watch it by themselves.

But by the time it has played out, we’ve met half a dozen characters whose lives we care about following. That achievement gives any show a passing grade. 

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