The Netflix comedy-drama Sex Education is look-away explicit in its treatment of sex. In fact, before I acclimatised to its no-holds barred, let-it-all-hang-out approach I spent many of the early episodes watching the screen through eye-shielding hands, tempted on occasions to hide behind the sofa as if I was a kid again hearing the Doctor Who theme music.
Once I had adjusted, though, I loved it. After a couple of episodes all lofty adult detachment disappeared and I was soon indulging in something I never thought I’d be caught doing in front of a TV – bingewatching.
But it’s left me with a few questions. First of all, why did I choose to watch a school drama about teenage sex in the first place? Was I kidding myself that it would help me write Young Adult novels and that I was merely engaging in research? And is it worrying that I enjoyed it quite so much?
Maybe it’s the characters: Otis, the wise sexually traumatised sixteen year old who ends up dispensing sex advice to other schoolkids for money; his mother (Gillian Anderson) a sex counsellor herself, wonderfully and implausibly insensitive to Otis’s real needs; Maeve, the bookish, cool, sassy girl from the wrong side of the tracks (or in her case a caravan park); Mr Groff, the headmaster and his bullying son, Adam; Eric, Otis’s gay best friend; Lily, writer of alien erotica, desperate to lose her virginity.
Maybe it’s the way that amongst the comic excess and silliness there are some genuinely moving scenes.Or maybe it’s the strangeness. Because, for all its strengths, Sex Education is very strange. Strangest of all is its setting. The school is British (the show’s filmed in Wales ) yet in many ways it seems very much the American High School – from its letter jackets to the importance it attaches to sport (in this case swimming – not quite ‘Friday Night Lights’ football-important, but still very American). The show also exists in a very strange time – it’s a contemporary drama but it sometimes feels like the 80’s or even the 70’s, something that’s reinforced by its clever eras-spanning soundtrack. Is this a deliberate fantasy world where very real issues are dealt with in a place that’s universal – simultaneously (to quote Jeff Beck) everywhere and nowhere? Or is it a bland amalgam, designed to have maximum geographical and generational appeal? In the same way, is it knowingly and ironically playing with those High School movie tropes or is it simply lifting them?
Sex Education may well be a clever Netflix marketing con, but it’s hugely enjoyable and definitely worth checking out. On a personal note, I’m mighty relieved that that my own kids have long since left home and that the show’s appearance did not coincide with their own schooldays in our pre-computer, one-screen household. Liberal as I am, the kind of conversations it might have led to, the kind that Otis has with his sex-therapist mum, would have been beyond me.
We do, though, share a Netflix account which means they can easily find out that their parents have been spending recent evenings watching Sex Education. I look forward to their calls and checking they got the Spartacus reference in the ‘It’s my vagina’ assembly scene.