Sex Education (SE) is a transatlantic teen drama comedy series about youthful sexuality available on Netflix. The show has an all British cast but draws heavily on the letter jacketed motifs of the Americana teen-core genre, made eternal by John Hughes’ 80s high school movies. The central character is a sexually alienated wimpy white teen named Otis (Asa Butterfield). His mother is a sex therapist (Gillian Anderson) and, by some over-powered version of symbolic breastfeeding, her son has inherited the full capabilities of her profession. He then uses these skills to cure his fellow school chums of their sexual hangups. Each episode gets a comfortable procedural structure from one of the sex-related monsters-of-the-week that arise, deliver adequate conflict and then resolve into a heartwarming lesson. The key to letting this warm teen-comedy-drama wash through you is to not to get caught in the jarring alternate dimension it is spawned of.
The show has a composite aesthetic that reminds me of lucid dreams I had as a teenager. The elements, floating like fumes from a cauldron, form a world that is part Hollywood fantasy land and part British homeland. The show was all filmed in the hills and valleys of South Wales but there is never a shot outside the Californian glamour of summer. The high-school, the central set of the show, is lined with American lockers but is in reality the defunct campus of the University of South Wales, displaying its hard, varnished and Victorian architecture as such. The pupils are that same uncanny mix, Americana (80s jeans and neon/pastel colour combos) pasted onto English actors, who then spit their lines out in a broad range of home county accents. SE opens the market to audiences on both sides of the pond by bleeding across cultural borders and making everyone richer.
This fantastical emulsion is not just the foundation of SE's look though – it is the engine of its humour. The facts are in: teens don’t know how to talk about sex. Not just to an adult when an adult tries to set the story straight; teens do not even know how to talk about sex to one another. SE’s funniest scenes are in the teens’ frank confessions that they give to each other. Athough some people can dive in to their sex life with a glorious innocence, others might feel condemned to shame, drowned in information and choked by fear during those years. All scenarios can resolve into life-affirming self-formation or crushing despair. In the fury of that time, though, our experiences get shared but not necessarily talked through. The irresponsibility of that may be prescient to adults but sex is performative at the adolescent stage. Fuck knows why we imagine teens to all spontaneously partake in therapy.
Social media gets blamed for not taking responsibility, and it’s no wonder. Social media has become the place where teenagers share their dark experiences. Let us not forget that the Welsh town of Bridgend, 35 miles from the set of SE, was the site of 26 teenage suicides from 2007 to 2009. This is where SE’s nostalgia exposes itself. There is no mention of social media or the internet throughout the show. It’s as if we were actually in the past. But we know this is not the actual 80s because the bilious homophobia and racism that we expect of the past would be breaking like pus from every teenage zit in the show. Instead, it deals with queer issues, race issues and tentacle porn with all the resolute positivity that millennials are famed for. As a result, the audience is stuck in a weird timezone, as though in a utopian 80s. Back then there would be no shame. There would have been no grungers, no facebook, no insta, no snapchat and no teen suicides.
For all the denial that SE is complicit in, I found joy in seeing teens freed of pain. And we find sincere pain within the show. When Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa, gets attacked whilst walking home in drag, we know the rage, shame and denial at once within the young man. We then rejoice as Eric’s father repairs his confidence and gets him back out there. If at most points the aesthetics can confuse, the tidy and sex-positive stories make the show a genuine heartwarmer. I forgive the show for leaving me betwixt and between the codes and conditions of this transatlantic fantasia when I remember that adolescence is just universal.