12:30 pm EDT, January 14, 2019

‘Sex Education’ review: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson raunchy comedy is first must-watch of 2019

The newest original series from Netflix joins the ranks of Big Mouth as the new standard in TV comedies with progressive views on the sex lives of burgeoning teenagers.

At the center of Netflix’s new dramedy Sex Education is Otis (Asa Butterfield) whose main hang-up is that he can’t masturbate. Not only that, the idea of it repulses him. Among the opening scenes of the show is Otis laying out the scene of appearing to have masturbated to fool his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson).

Now, why would he want his mom to know such an intimate thing about him? She would pry otherwise because she’s a licensed sex therapist, running her practice out of their beautiful hillside cottage, sexual accouterments scattered about the abode.

It all sounds raunchy and highly sexualized, especially considering the opening sex scene that warrants an immediate hard R, but the British series from newcomer Laurie Nunn couldn’t be any more the opposite. It’s charming, delicate, sweet-hearted and, best of all, overwhelmingly empathetic toward its teenage characters, every single one of them.

The draw for many (including myself) firing up this show is of course Gillian Anderson, sporting a slicked-back blonde bob and delivering comedic lines with aplomb — just wait to you get her line reading of “man milk.” And when it comes to the more dramatic, touching moments between mother and son, she naturally nails those, as well.

She’s an absolute delight, and the series sings effortlessly during her scenes. My only complaint, really, is that there isn’t more of her. In each episode, she lands the B or C plot when you feel like you could spend entire episodes inside that lovely cottage with her analyzing patients.

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This series, however, is about the teenagers at Moordale Secondary, as the first episode opens on their first day of school with Asa Butterfield’s Otis wanting only to blend into the crowd and go about his day, avoiding his own sexual frustrations and the simple fact that he remains a virgin. His best friend, Eric (a scene-stealing Ncuti Gatwa), has other plans and wants to stand out and climb the social and sexual ladder.

Sex Education takes its time letting us settle in with these characters and their world — one that’s lovely to be in with all the gorgeous English countryside and such — before it even introduces the conceit; that is, Otis unwittingly begins operating a makeshift sex consulting firm for students with fellow classmate and love interest, Maeve (a delightful Emma Mackey).

While a bit far-fetched, Laurie Nunn takes this premise and, over the course of eight episodes, evolves it into an honest coming-of-age story with teenagers coming into their bodies and themselves and owning the narratives of their young lives. In this sense, it’s hard not to have a conversation about this series without also talking about Netflix’s other sex positive comedy, the animated Big Mouth.

It’s sometimes gross, awkward and uncomfortable but it’s never not truthful. Both shows are refreshingly candid on teenagers discovering their changing bodies and sexual desires. Teens aren’t treated as stereotypes but instead as real flesh and blood people, and any stereotypes that are presented are quickly subverted.

What’s most notable about Sex Education is that it comes from a female creator and a team of female writers, which gives it a viewpoint that isn’t overtly apparently but is noticeably welcome. Toxic masculinity is checked and female sexuality is observed with sensitivity and understanding.

For example, episode 3 deals with Maeve, equal parts tough and vulnerable throughout, getting an abortion. It’s an episode of television that pairs nicely with Big Mouth‘s season two Planned Parenthood episode. Moments like this are frequent throughout each episode, moments of honesty about teenage sexuality without shying away from realities. Every episode opens with a young couple struggling in the bedroom, such as a lesbian couple struggling to achieve orgasm or a young woman who gags when giving head.

A warm-hearted, feel-good, sex-positive dramedy that relishes both in raunchy, gross-out humor and sincere beats of empathy is a tricky balance to strike, but Sex Education makes it look totally effortless. With Asa Butterfield at its center, delivering a winning and utterly charming performance, the young cast of characters are a joy to spend time with, and across just eight episodes, I’m already craving season 2.

Our Score

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