Contains spoilers for Season 1 of Sex Education.
From the moment you start watching Sex Education, the hype thrums in your head. An English comedy drama, about a kid sex-Midas using advice that he got from his sex therapist mum getting paid to dole out to kids in his school, despite having never done anything sexual in his life? Absolutely gas, sign me up.
Have you ever excitedly picked up a different flavour of Oreo – let’s say the birthday cake flavour- thinking “wow, these guys make such good biscuits, this looks like it’s gonna be a guaranteed fun time”; except when you try it, it’s colourful and fundamentally solid, but you can’t help but think “wow, I guess that’s it?” Yeah. That’s Sex Education. It tastes like a birthday cake, but only ever has the semblance of a birthday cake.
This might be a slightly harsh note to start on considering that the show boasts plenty to love. Gillian Anderson is iconic as Otis’ (Asa Butterfield) emotionally cold but well-meaning mother with a new dalliance every night, while Eric transcends the gay best friend trope to be the most fun and charismatic part of the show. This is without mentioning the brief scene where three women do a Mexican Wave in the waiting room of an abortion clinic in a moment so quietly empathetic that it deserves an Emmy all on its own, but is this enough? The short answer is: no.
Hopes are high when all the main characters are introduced, despite the fact that they all represent a supremely overdone archetype. We have the misunderstood school bully with daddy issues; the awkward loner with a heart of gold; the standoffish grunge girl with a Russian doll of defence mechanisms hiding a soft core; the flamboyant gay guy; the prim girly-girl walked over by her mean girl crew; the misunderstood jock whose life is too perfect; and so on. This doesn’t raise any red flags initially because this is an English show, and English shows like Skins and the Inbetweeners are notorious for skewering these archetypes and delving into the painfully awkward and gritty realities of teenage years to mine pain, empathy and transcendent humour.
But this isn’t a British show, is it? From the varsity jacket-wearing jocks to the stereotypical cliques, from the obvious emotional beats to the eye rolling focus on the prom as the emotional climax. The only thing English about this show is the accents, and even they are vessels for hackneyed platitudes and shallow Americanisms.
Let’s talk about Otis. The underdog loser with a heart of gold and who’s wise beyond his years, is done to death as it is, and this show does nothing to subvert it; instead leaning into a trope which is increasingly problematic in the era of the epidemic of soft boys using tools of emotional manipulation and “Nice Guy” entitlement to get what they want and fly under the radar as narcissistic abusers. Otis’ consistent lack of tact and emotional immaturity are treated as a “feel sorry for the shy loser making mistakes and getting down on his luck” type moment, and the fact that he is rewarded for being so stunted (he lashes out constantly) by eventually getting the girl who is obviously too good for him is nauseating. He is, quite frankly, the worst.
His troubling arc reaches a climax in the penultimate episode’s prom scene. Oh, the prom scene. First of all, the fact that all of the narrative threads of this show culminate in a prom scene is just so unabashedly lazy and, above that, strangely American. Any modicum of down-to-Earth realism is immediately decimated by the knowledge that so many, many dramatic things would never believably happen at an English school dance, unless that drama is Terrence in sixth form having his mum called to pick him up after getting sick on the principal’s shoes.
That isn’t the worst moment, though. That comes when Otis’ sex clinic client Liam gets up on a ledge and threatens to jump because a girl who has rejected his creepy advances numerous times won’t go out with him, despite the fact that he “loves” her. Hope is raised that someone will give him a dressing down and tell him that threatening self-harm in front of a judgemental crowd to force someone to give him what he wants is the lowest form of manipulation there is. However, that’s when Otis gets on his soapbox to make his big speech. What does this consist of? Sentimental “love isn’t about grand gestures” and telling the juvenile stalker that he’s “dedicated.” What? There’s a sense of underdogs banding together, which would be nice if not for the creepy undertones and utter lack of accountability for one’s actions.
Then there’s Eric’s storyline. Eric, we had such high hopes for you. Eric is unequivocally the best character in this series, and even he succumbs to such predictable beats as the paint-by-numbers homophobia storyline, with the show making no effort to do anything new with this formula. Thank God for Otis, though, who comes through for his best friend after being physically assaulted to… make it about himself and throw a tantrum. The poor writing in this arc frustratingly equates Eric’s very real trauma with a generic quibble among best friends, with Otis completely ignoring the realities of the situation to treat it as a spat with both of them in the wrong, with Otis being the one to trash his room in a rage. When the two reconcile at the prom after Otis calls Eric the bravest person he knows, the feeling of vomit rising is very real.
With Eric comes, unfortunately, Adam, the school sociopath. Honestly, the less said about this the better. He was only interesting when he was unable to orgasm with his girlfriend, and even this was handled with the insight of a line of Riverdale dialogue. When the twist at the end of the show reveals that he’s actually into Eric, it’s absolutely maddening. Oh wow, the homophobic bully was gay all along! We’ve never seen this before! We definitely haven’t progressed past it if this show, stuck in a weird temporal loop where it could be either modern day or the 70s, both in aesthetic and outdated ideals, are anything to go by. It’s neither timeless nor timely. It’s just really, really stupid.
The show runners have since said that they laid out the threads of their attraction throughout the season; honestly, where? In the swoon-inducing intimidating glares? In the outright physical abuse? In the intoxicatingly romantic threats to the tune of “I’m gonna kill you”? Gay attraction can be birthed from mutual resentment and fear, because you’ve got to take what you can get when you’re the only gay in the village, even if that means getting with your abuser. Is that the takeaway from this? Spare us. Not only is this harmful to expectations of gay romance to a wide, mostly heterosexual audience, it builds on the gay community’s built-in “masc-for-masc” discrimination against fem-presenting gays. I doubt the show runners have any idea what any of this means, and that’s what’s dangerous; ignorance can manifest in unintended ways that are just as dangerous as the things of which they are cognisant.
The only potentially satisfying arc in this series is Gillian Anderson’s brilliantly dotty and wide-eyed navigation of being a single mother to a repressed young son, which could have developed into a damning indictment of “mummy bloggers” and their performative care for the sake of exploiting their child, but instead abandons that at the final hurdle to force Otis and his mum to reconcile. In the end, Sex Education abandons ideas of trauma, broken families and the painful realities of sexual discovery in favour of bland, sanitised juvenilia. Now that Season 2 is confirmed, we can only hope for more moments like that Mexican Wave. More birthday cake, less flavoured Oreo.