As a longtime fan of John Hughes teen movies, a show that’s nearly set up entirely to be a sort of homage to those films would seem to be right up my alley. And for the most part, Sex Education, a funny, candid, teen comedy about sex (very un-sexy sex, in the spirit of most teenage encounters), is pretty much that, but at other times it threatens to bury itself under the strain of too many cliches and familiar tropes of the genre. There’s a point where it becomes less homage and just plain unoriginal.
Which is too bad, because the majority of it does feel fresh and original, as do most of the characters. It’s the home stretch where things go awry. Set in the fictional country town of Moordale in England, Asa Butterfield (quite appealing in this, in a young John Cusack kind of way) is Otis, a sexually repressed 16-year-old who can’t masturbate due to phobias brought about by his mother (a hilariously entertaining Gillian Anderson) being a sex therapist whose casual frankness about all things sex-related has made him, shall we say…uncomfortable. But also due to his upbringing, he’s openminded, progressive and highly knowledgable on the subject, which makes him the perfect candidate to start a sex clinic at school with his crush Maeve Wiley (Margot Robbie lookalike Emma Mackey), the cool girl with the bad reputation.
This is an implausible premise, I’ll grant you, but the show is an outright comedy, and the setup leads to all kinds of sex questions, lessons, and smutty storylines as the teens pile up to spill their guts to the befuddled yet sweet Otis, as he pines for Maeve and longs for normalcy. The back and forth with him and Maeve is the old, will-they-won’t-they, nice boy meets girl from wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance, with plenty of phony love interests thrown in along the way for obstacle’s sake (don’t be with Jackson, Maeve! He’s the wrong guy for you!). I can’t help it if I’m a bit over this by now. In fact, I don’t mind saying that love triangles have become a borderline evil plot point for me- if you don’t get your couple together in the first six episodes, there’s a real good chance I’m walking away.
So yes, there is no chance that you won’t see where that is going, but thankfully, there are other characters to amuse and delight, especially Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) as Otis’s gay best friend, a funny and adorable friendship that carries the show as much as anything, Adam (Connor Swindells), the school bully and headmaster’s son whose story turns out far more intriguing than any of the love triangle crap, and Lily, a desperate to have sex, writer of erotic alien fiction, nicely played by a deadpan Tanya Reynolds. Here’s another word of warning about this show- the cringe comedy is very cringe, with some of the most awkward, embarrassing moments I’ve had to sit through since the original BBC version of The Office. Hats off to the young ensemble for pulling it off, as well as to the producers for casting the most racially and sexually diverse high school I’ve ever seen on television (or film come to think of it). I’m not sure that this show will appeal to everyone, as the frank sex comedy combined with the earnest John Hughes tribute of it all (and I do mean that- it’s even scored with an entirely 80’s soundtrack despite being set in present day) makes for a different kind of tone, but by the end of the season, the way certain storylines wrap, every familiar beat of teen comedies and romantic comedies will play out exactly as you expect them to, which is a bit of a disappointment. But overall, there’s enough here to recommend and the actors are so appealing that a second season would be welcomed by me with gusto.