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Tuesday, 8 January 2019

REVIEW: Why 'Sex Education' is a quite a struggle.

The sheer amount of Netflix Originals can be overwhelming. The streaming service 'drops' new series at an alarming rate. The first one of the new year is actually a British comedy - or as US reviewers have dubbed it 'a Britcom'. 


Landing on Friday, Sex Education is an eight-episode comedy created by TV newcomer Laurie Nunn. It is set in the fictional English town of Moordale (the team shot in Wales) and it's the first thing I found utterly befuddling about the series. For a British sitcom or comedy-drama this feels as far removed from Britain as it possible to get. The series has a strange ambiguity to it. It doesn't look British nor does it feel British.

The press release from Netflix describes the series as  "a contemporary British love-letter to the classic American high-school story." I found that to be a confusing message. The show has the feel of a show like Riverdale (admittedly not a show I've seen a lot of) but with British accents and inappropriate use of a curly whirly.  It centres around teenager Otis (Asa Butterfield) who is the only child of two sex therapists. His mother Jean Milburn (the quite wonderful Gillian Anderson) has absolutely no filter when it comes to sex and Otis often wakes up to find his mother's latest conquest enjoying Breakfast the next morning. She's crude, honest and unashamed but it's clear that she loves her son dearly.

The American High-School story comes into play within the confines of Otis's secondary school. It's here the writing falls apart. Otis has an understandable awkwardness about him that some might find endearing, but his cliched classmates feel like amalgamations of teen characters and school cliques we've seen in every comedy of this kind. I found myself unable to fully immerse myself within the world the show was wanting me to buy into because it didn't feel true. You're telling me this is a British High School but no one is wearing a school uniform, with some sporting Lettered jackets that look like they've been plucked out of the costume department of 'Saved By The Bell' it all feels very confused and I found it quite disorienting. I suppose to enjoy it you have to accept the this 'contemporary' show you have to tell yourself that it exists in an alternate reality but that's something I wrestled with throughout and although it may seem pedantic it ultimately spoilt my enjoyment of the first episode.


As you'd expect from the title the series revels in explicit sex acts which Netflix have given the team free rein to show in all their glory - although that doesn't feel like quite the right term. The opening scene sees school tough guy Adam (Connor Swindells) faking an orgasm with girlfriend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) who demands to see evidence of 'spunk' the condom. Like most of Otis's schoolmates, these two characters feel underdeveloped. When Adam meets Jean she hypothesises that Adam's inability to perform might be a side effect of his drug taking and later scenes see Adam taking a viagra like pill to improve his chances of reaching climax.

Whilst the majority of the opening episode tires to set up the different players of the story introducing us to  Otis's gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) who at first glance feels like a stereotype but slowly unravels to reveal his more complex sides. Bad Girl Meave (Emma Mackey) who sits at the back of class glaring at anyone who dares glance in her direction. Meave isn't the character she first appears either, her tough exterior hides someone who is engaging, bright and wise beyond their years. I have a lot of gripes and niggles about Sex Education but the majority of them centre on how otherworldly it feels. No one here feels new or exciting and the world is hard to grasp.


The actual crux of the series comes into play far too late in the opening episode for me to actually care about its outcome. Jittery Otis who, up until has been embarrassed by his parents working in sex therapy realizes that he can use his specialist knowledge to gain status. He teams up with Maeve and together they set up an underground sex therapy clinic to deal with their fellow students’ weird and wonderful problems. Through his analysis of teenage sexuality, Otis realises he may need some therapy of his own. This premise is the only genuinely new thing about the series, but by the time it arrived I was so bored and unengaged with the characters that I didn't care enough to carry on. 

There's something I wrestle with as a viewer and a critic of how many episodes I should watch to form a proper opinion on a show, but the job of an opening episode is surely to engage me with the world and encourage me to persevere. Sadly, the first episode of Sex Education failed. Its 50minute runtime felt about right but I just didn't see anything in that opener to encourage me to let Netflix play the next episode. You may well think differently, be able to look past the niggles of the un-English feel, or the sloppy use of language, but I really struggled. It's the first genuine disappointment of the year. When the trailer launched before Christmas it seemed right up my street, but I found this first one to be lacking in charm or new ideas. It hurts even more because Netflix axed a similar show in Everything Sucks that did feel authentic, oozed charm and told an unexpected story. That show's biggest obstacle was its confusing title here, at least the title acts as a warning of what's to come, but I won't be tuning in for more and I'm so disappointed that I'm saying that.

Sex Education launches Friday 11th January on Netflix Worldwide.

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