When a friend told me to tune into Sex Education on Netflix in early January, I really thought I would learn nothing new. I was expecting a fun British romp with Gillian Anderson, but I also got a masterclass in what’s to come when my eldest child starts high school in the fall.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to get into this sweetheart of a show if you missed it the first time out the gate. Many Sex Education fans (like me) have watched the series twice while we await a second season. (A note to parents of tweens/teens—there’s a bit of graphic sex and sex talk, so watch this on your own and assess what works for your family). The show is intentionally set in an obscure time frame—it could be 2019 or 1992, much like present-day fashions—in what feels like the prettiest, sunniest town in all of England, with a kick-ass soundtrack of new wave songs that bring joy to my Gen X heart. The series follows Otis Milburn (played by Asa Butterfield of Hugo fame), a socially awkward 16-year-old high school student with Frodo-level blue eyes, who lives with his single mom, Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson, looking unbelievably sexy in killer jumpsuits), a sex therapist who has trouble respecting her teenage son’s boundaries and increasing independence. Otis and his best friend, Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa, whose character explores his gender fluidity in a small town), lack status and popularity at their school, Mordale Secondary School. When smart, sexy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) discovers that Otis has a gift for counselling fellow teens about their sex and relationship problems, she offers to run a side hustle with him as the booker for his unofficial high school sex therapist, and everything changes.
The teens on the show have myriad problems, from the classic unrequited crush to a vomit-inducing gag reflex—not to mention a giant “two-Coke-can” penis that can’t seem to ejaculate. High school sex and relationships are messy, but everything is treated with a flawlessly executed, shame-free humour. It’s clear the writers/creators have a deep compassion for the show’s characters, who are at first set up as typical teen stereotypes—the jock, the bad girl, the bully, the nerd (think Breakfast Club meets Masters of Sex)—but whose storylines are so fully fleshed out by the end that you can’t help but fall in love with each one. The show’s creators intentionally give everything an American high school vibe, from lockers to letterman jackets, trying to appeal to a wider audience, and it works.
While the story is truly that of Otis’ journey from nerd to notoriety and eventually finding himself, for me the show is made by those closest to him. Eric is easily my favourite character, with his effervescence, bold outfits and dramatic storyline that still offers much comedy. Maeve’s arc from “bad girl” with limited options to misunderstood young woman with new possibilities is heartening. Bombshell Aimee, a “never without a boyfriend” type, discovers what she wants from sex after Otis prescribes a “wank,” producing one of the funniest and satisfying scenes in the series. And then there’s my girl Jean. From having loud sex with an assortment of lovers to snooping in her son’s room, Gillian Anderson is so relatable as a modern woman owning her own independence while uncomfortably navigating the growing autonomy of her teenage son.
Like Dr. Jean Milburn, I’m a single parent (although unlike Gillian Anderson’s character, I have an active co-parent). And as the children of a former Today’s Parent editor, my kids have been raised with the language of psychology, much like Otis. But watching Jean navigate the pain of a child pulling away from you, even when you know it’s a natural stage in their development, reminded me of one thing: There’s no script for raising teens. If Sex Education has taught me anything, it’s that you have to trust that your kid embodies at least some of your values and accept that they’ll figure it out as they go, no matter how painful it is to watch from the sidelines.