Love is, for all its Hallmark-tinged, Valentine’s Day-enabled, rose-tinted loveliness, a very messy business in the real world.
Just how messy becomes clear in Netflix’s new eight-part show Sex Education in which the students at a British private school, Moreland, as typical a hotbed of hormones and unbridled lust as you’re likely to find anywhere, discover just how complicated sex and falling in love, and more importantly in the flighty world of teenagers, staying in love, can be.
Our eyes on this world of requited and unrequited love and lust is Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), an awkward 16-year-old boy whose overbearing but well-meaning sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson) has screwed up the ability of her son to have anything a normal healthy sex life, by himself or with others.
And yet while Otis is deeply-repressed and finds relating to the opposite sex a trial by tongue-tied fire, it turns out, thanks to the encouragement of Moreland’s resident “bad girl” Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) – she is actually fearsomely intelligent, her bark worse than bite to protect her from the gossiping snide fellow students such as über-chic but unremittingly and cruelly judgemental group known as The Untouchables – that he’s actually great at giving sexual and relational advice.
Keen to make some money – Maeve, with a drug-addict mum, drug-dealer brother and a bare bones home in a trailer park to her name needs it more than comfortably well-off Otis – they launch themselves into the fetid world of high school relationships, dispensing wisdom in some very unusual settings.
Take the time Otis discusses some fairly frank sexual matters with a fellow student at a swimming meet; it’s noisy and boisterous and as the crowd cheers around them, they delve into the problems this student is facing with the object of their affection.
Similar appointments take place in the bathtub at a wild party held at the home of one of The Untouchables, Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood), who is simultaneously one of the poisonous elite but close friends with Maeve and before and after school as students from across the sexual spectrum try to make sense of the brave new world of love and dating.
As Otis gets more confident and sure of himself as an amateur therapist, and forges friendships and more with people like Maeve and malcontented principal’s son Adam (Connor Swindells) who has more going on than his taciturn face and bullying persona lets on, his life changes in ways that he would never have entertained when his world at school consisted solely of gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa).
What makes Sex Education a cut above the usual high school fare is its refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.
There are no uncomplicated happily-ever-afters – not even happy endings sometimes with the sex scenes that begin each episode illustrating with humour and emotional poignancy how inexperienced and uncertain so many of the students are; it makes sense, they are, in the end, just kids – and misunderstandings and miscommunication galore proof that while Otis’s advice might be bang on, its execution is in the hands of young people who have still to fully comprehend what a relationship should really look like.
Indeed, what life itself should look like.
Refreshingly, Sex Education never once looks down upon or condesendingly judges its characters, all of whom are realised in vividly-flawed three dimensions, as far from narratively-convenient tropes as you could ask for.
On paper, he’s your typical kid with an overbearing sexually-liberated sex therapist mother with no boundaries, who for all her training still doesn’t know what to do when love comes a-calling in the form of plumber Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt), whose experience of his parents’ divorce has rendered effectively eunuch-like.
Played with understated sweet earnestness by Butterfield, Otis is a layered, complex character who may have issues with his own sexuality and with the opposite sex but who is at heart a fairly-normal flawed but good kid trying to figure all kinds of boundaries even as he helps others set theirs.
Similarly, everyone from Maeve to Adam, Eric to Ola (Patricia Allison), who may just be the girl to get Otis out of his sexually-repressed funk, are fully-fleshed and endearingly, authentically human, all of them, to a person, wanting the best for their life but ill-equipped to really know that even looks like.
So while we might have all kinds of love and sex options flying around the place, and with visually-graphic fervour, Sex Education never once settles for easy tropes or barely-examined situations, its storytelling complex and emotionally-involving in a way that few other dramas of its ilk really manage.
There is nothing trite or silly about any of the storylines as the show goes to great lengths to flesh out what it is to be each and every one of those characters, and how what might be immediately apparent about them, is not even remotely close to telling the whole story.
That is the greatest strength of Sex Education.
It never once throws up easy answers or tries to over-simplify the life of its characters, all of whom are endearing in some form or another, precisely because they feel real and their concerns are treated as serious and not high school melodramatic fodder.
It is funny, it is real, beautifully-nuanced and very, very human, admitting that none of us, not even the adults,have their shit together but that all of us really, really want to, especially when you’re at the age Otis, Maeve, Eric and the others are at when you want to get life right and aren’t always sure how to go about it.