Sometimes, it’s refreshing to see a story that strips away the pretenses and embraces the truth: Human beings, like so many other living species, are sexual creatures, and they like to have sex. It doesn’t mean they’re automatically good at it, know what they want, or know how to get it, but that fundamental drive thrums throughout every minute of the new Netflix series “Sex Education,” while also never compromising its sweet and eccentric cast of characters.
At the center of the series is Otis (Asa Butterfield), a 16-year-old high school student living in some truly idyllic British countryside, whose sexual awakening has yet to really begin. What makes this complicated is his home life with single mother Jean (Gillian Anderson), a practicing sex and relationship therapist who loves using the most embarrassing nomenclature possible to describe acts her son can barely even imagine committing.
However, living as he does with his mom, his enterprising classmate Maeve (Emma Mackey) notices that he’s picked up on a lot of her teachings, and encourages him to start up his own “sex clinic,” charging his fellow students for his advice on their romantic interests.
Created by Laurie Nunn, the first half of the season was directed by Ben Taylor (who helmed the first three seasons of “Catastrophe”), with the second half helmed by Kate Herron (“Five by Five”). There’s a lot of young talent on screen: “Sex Education’s” biggest name on screen might be Anderson (whose Twitter bio now proclaims her to be a “shag specialist”), but this is a story about the kids. Because one of the best things about this show is the fact that so many of these characters do feel like kids — not hyper-articulate young adults, but scrambling teenagers who don’t really know how they feel about anything — they just know they feel it.
All that said, the adults don’t seem to have things any more figured out than the kids, as largely represented by Jean, whose avoidance of real relationships in favor of casual sex serves as her primary storyline; that, and finding new ways to embarrass Otis comprise the majority of her screen time, but it does allow Anderson to stretch in new and exciting ways.
Anderson’s resume, beyond “The X-Files,” is packed largely with serious period dramas and other roles which don’t require her to smile or have much in the way of fun. (The most notable exception, of course, being her Emmy-worthy shapeshifting in Season 1 of “American Gods.”) Here, though, she’s perhaps the loosest she’s ever been on screen, leaning into both Jean’s charming awkwardness and her intellectual pride. (Turns out 11 seasons of “The X-Files” was great training for spouting off scientific jargon in a natural way.)
Again, though, it’s the kids’ story, with the fluctuations in both friendships and relationships pinging back and forth with youthful verve. “Sex Education” does a lot of things really well, chief amongst them being the creation of a high school world which feels fully developed — realistic to a degree, but just John Hughes-y enough to enable a sense of escapism. (The soundtrack uses just enough eclectic ’80s tracks to enable that feeling.)
There’s a fair amount of playing with classic tropes, but while jocks and nerds and princesses and freaks and outcasts are all represented, over the course of the series they’re developed out into a sweet, likable ensemble. It’s reminiscent of how “13 Reasons Why” makes both the high school and small-town community feel like a real, lived-in place — except in “Sex Education,” everyone’s not miserable all the time.
In fact, between the simply stunning shots of English forests and hills and the charming cast, the world of “Sex Education” is one you genuinely want to live in. Butterfield proves more than capable of serving as the show’s lead; sometimes young actors have a hard time with the transition into more adult roles, but the “Ender’s Game” and “Hugo” star is confident in all the right ways. Also, Margot Robbie lookalike Mackey manages to ensure that Maeve is equal parts tough and vulnerable, with enough innate charisma to make you want the best for her. (In case you were wondering, she’s the Judd Nelson of the pack.)
“Sex Education’s” innate sweetness comes with the message that while one 16-year-old might be ready for sex, another might not be — and that’s okay. It’s blunt in its depiction of sexuality: A teenage couple goes so hard at it in the opening scene that the MPAA would slap this show with an R rating without watching a second more. But it also proves incredibly fond of its characters, a feeling passed down to the viewers. No spoilers, but the season finale sets up plenty of material for a second season, and fingers crossed Netflix is ready to pull the trigger on that fast.
“Sex Education” is streaming now on Netflix.