“You are about to enter another dimension…” so intoned author and producer Rod Serling as he introduced early episodes of The Twilight Zone, and you could forgive British audiences for thinking the same thing when watching Sex Education. I realise I’m middle-aged and schools and students have all changed a lot since back in my day in the 1970s and early ’80s but still, this so bloody weird. Moordale High -the central setting of this mostly teen-revolved drama- is like no English High School I’ve ever seen, and neither are its pupils the kind of pupils I see going to and from schools during my commute, and the rural sedate setting with a vast wooded valley and lovely detached houses for millionaires is not exactly my experience of ordinary urban England.
Turns out this was quite deliberate, the show-runners aiming for a beyond-reality, culturally vague setting that is as much a period 1980s drama as it is a modern one (much of the decor look 1980s but everyone’s got mobile phones and laptops and social media inevitably plays a big part in the story), and as much an aspiration towards American iconic tv/cinema tropes (Back to the Future, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as it is a quaintly English story. Its a strange hybrid mash-up that is initially disorientating and even off-putting (I nearly switched it off, but am glad I stuck with it- I wonder if many British viewers actually bailed on it?). The series was actually shot last summer in Wales, which doubles the oddness, as it boasts a warm and sunny climate rather unlike our typical English weather, certainly in usual term-time, and the Welsh countryside populated by English-accented thespians in often very American-style garb and driving some rather 1980s-era vehicles just heightens the Rod Serling vibe.
But it works. Ultimately, I have to say, while its setting is a very strange, surreal alternate reality that threatens to slap British viewers, particularly, in the face (I’m sure American viewers don’t even blink, they probably think this is just how we live over here) once you acclimatise to it, it’s kind of crazy but it works.
Neither is Sex Education as brazen or coarse or exploitative as you might expect, and maybe the strange otherworldly setting is a deliberate strategy towards that. Once it settles in past its second episode, it actually tones down much of the sexual aspects and becomes a really enjoyable and quite involving teen romance/comedy mash-up of so many old favourites and tropes it’s a whole lot of fun. Its a love story between two teenagers in the grand ‘will-they-won’t-they’ tradition of so many dramas and soaps, it’s also the love stories between two male friends, between a son and his sex-therapist mother, between school friends and lovers, long-term and casual, straight and lesbian. Its about relationships in general and all the messy stuff growing up and discovering who and what we are- which probably makes it sound more sophisticated than it really is, but nevermind.
Its a much better series than I expected it to be. Its so much its own thing you just end up going along with it, and a lot of that is thanks to the cast, who are very good (the casting department did great things with this show). Gillian Anderson, of course, is no stranger to playing therapists and could probably play this role in her sleep, really, as its making few real demands on her, but her sense of comic timing is really fine. Asa Butterfield plays her frustrated-but-with-a-heart-of-gold son Otis, and he’s great (I have to wonder if he was considered for Villeneuve’s Dune because he looks a sure fit for Paul). Emma Mackey’s character Maeve is possibly the emotional core of the whole show, and Mackey is certain for bigger and better things on the strength of her performance here. Likewise I’m sure we’ll sure a great future career from Ncuti Gatwa, who is terrific as Otis’ best friend, Eric, a flamboyant gay black kid from a conservative family who has a great arc through the series and nearly steals the show from everyone around him. There’s many other performers of the cast that I could mention here, but on the whole it’s a fantastic ensemble that just works, and its evident they must have all had a blast working on it- the show is full of such enthusiasm and joy and its quite infectious.
So another great show from Netflix then. Great writing, a great cast, some great deft and sensitive direction, there’s such a lot going for it and I dearly hope for a second season, as I’d love to see where these characters go from the teasing season finale.