The first episode of “Sex Education,” the new Netflix series, shouldn’t be watched with anyone from another generation. There’s too much room for embarrassment. But it is fascinating.
A British teenager borrows a page from his parents’ playbook (they’re sex therapists) and advises his friends at an abandoned restroom. There, he dispenses advice about all sorts of matters of the flesh. He’s good – and matter of fact – but he has no experience.
Indeed, Otis (Asa Butterfield) is afraid to make his own first moves, largely because his parents have been so open about their relationships. When mom (Gillian Anderson) tries to confront him about his inhibitions, he rebels and, well, you can see where this is headed.
Covering just about every question you might have about sex, “Sex Education” is like a manual they never distributed in school. Otis gets things right, but he also screws things up with his friends, including a gay bestie, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), who has to maneuver his own set of minefields.
Among them: a bully named Adam (Connor Swindells, who's exceptional) who has problems with a girlfriend and isn’t afraid to take it out on others. Adam also has a dad who’s demanding and, conveniently, the headmaster of their school. When son continues to disappoint on all levels, dad threatens to send him away.
It takes eight episodes to sort this all out, but the eight breeze by – not unlike reading a dirty novel. Creator Laurie Nunn, however, doesn’t toss in nudity just to boost ratings. She actually gives “Sex Education” purpose and a lot of laughs.
Butterfield, who’s quite good as the counselor, gets “patients” through a partnership with the resident counter-culture student, Maeve (Emma Mackey). She lines them up and watches as her own relationships begin to wither.
She’s paired with a star swimmer who doesn’t like the kind of push his same-sex parents are more than willing to give.
While Anderson flirts around the edges (looking a bit like Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada”) and deals glibly with everything from plumbing problems to, well, plumbing problems, she doesn’t make a lasting impression.
Instead, it’s the teens who triumph as they learn and teach.
Nunn relies on stereotypes to fuel her bus. But once it gets moving those “dumb jock/naïve nerd/outrageous gay guy” tropes fall away.
Like “American Vandal,” “Sex Education” shows a savvier generation than John Hughes ever imagined. These teens wrestle with problems “The Breakfast Club” didn’t face. They seem mature and confident, even if their palms are just as sweaty as their predecessors’.
“Sex Education” may tease in its first hour. But it settles down as the series wears on. Then, you get to admire the great performances by Butterfield, Mackey, Swindells and Gatwa. They make the lessons worth learning.
“Sex Education” airs on Netflix.