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Opinion: More sex please, we’re British

  • ‘Sex Education’ tackles issues of identity, confidence and repression under the guise of a raunchy romantic comedy 
  • What 'Sex Education' understands better than most is that everyone in high school is just a different shade of bizarre

Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson in ‘Sex Education’. 
Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson in ‘Sex Education’. 

What do you make of a young athlete—the most popular young fellow in high school, to be precise—coming up to a girl, plaintively quoting some Virginia Woolf, and then heading back into a run, as if literature was but another hurdle on an endless obstacle course? “I think he’s peacockin’," says a girl used to klutzy male attention and many a type of awkward overcompensation, yet dumbfounded by this odd display. “But with words."

Sex Education, a British comedy series that has rightfully taken Netflix by storm, does the same thing. “Peacocking" is the act of trying too hard, most commonly via outrageous clothing, in order to win somebody’s attention—or at least to distract them long enough, to merely make oneself visible. This is the kind of show that could have been written off as just another saucy underage comedy—take two parts of Freaks And Geeks, add in a few helpings of Fresh Meat—but it stands out, peacocking with words not merely by way of flamboyant quirk, but with impressive, overwhelming empathy for its characters.

The setup is dynamite. Fresh-faced Asa Butterfield, so wide-eyed about cinema in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, is now all grown up, awkwardly tall and exposed to far too much sex and deviance via his sex-therapist mother, played by the goddess Gillian Anderson. Anderson, cast as Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming season of The Crown, gets a head start on that role by playing someone with an inappropriate disregard for boundaries, and her son is understandably intimidated by the talk of dysfunction and debauchery that fills their house. He has, however, osmotically learnt a thing or two about sexual inadequacy, and this knowledge becomes just the meal ticket for him at school, where everyone is yearning for a shag—and just as many are convinced they’re doing it wrong.

British television shows do not judge their characters, leaving that to the audience and getting on with it. American shows about youth are specifically held back by morality, with protagonists never quite allowed to step over the line. The good kids, say American shows, would never go as far as the deviants, wild characters used for shock value and comic relief. This is why Brit shows about youngsters feel immediate and spontaneous, from current rage Derry Girls to the hilarious Fresh Meat to the once-groundbreaking Skins, all available on Netflix alongside Sex Education, shows that honestly depict the pimples and the profanity of a generation on the pull.

What Sex Education understands better than most is that everyone in high school is just a different shade of bizarre. Some kids hide it better, some wear it on their sleeves, some turn it into their party trick, but nobody’s quite all there—everyone’s a jigsaw looking for pieces, figuring out what shape they’re supposed to be. Therefore we relate not only to gawky leading man Otis, who dresses like an accountant and is described—not inaccurately—as that “weird sex kid who looks like a Victorian ghost", but also to the vibrant girl too cool to be popular, the star athlete, and the bully. Everybody’s checking out somebody else’s grass.

The cast is tremendous. Butterfield is wonderfully woeful as the pale protagonist, perfectly overcompensated for in every way by his fabulous best friend, Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa. There’s obvious stardom to be glimpsed in Emma Mackey, who looks like an underage Margot Robbie and delivers a complex, elegant performance as the show’s heroine, Maeve. These actors are a classfull of standouts, from the unsure Aimee Lou Wood to the space-erotica sketching Tanya Reynolds, and presiding over them all is Anderson’s marvellously distracting therapist. A tentative temptress with too much on her mind, the actor reminds us, as she always does, to look outside—for that is where the truth lies.

Created by playwright Laurie Nunn, Sex Education is more astute and insightful than the other shows mentioned here. Within the trappings of a raunchy romantic comedy and several coming of age (ahem) stories, this cinematic series tackles genuine issues of identity, confidence and repression. The problems might seem exaggerated and cartoonish, but dysfunction is never played for laughs, and the answers all lie in openness and honesty. As with all jigsaws, the quest is perpetually for life’s corner pieces, that then let us know where we stand. Like great sex, this show goes deeper than you expect. It’s all about finding the fit.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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