Netflix just released a new entry into the TTCU: Troubled Teenager Cinematic Universe. It’s a series called Sex Education that’s about, you guessed it, high schoolers trying to grapple with heavy life issues like sex. Sort of like 13 Reasons Why. And The End of the F***ing World (my personal favorite). And Atypical.
I won’t dive into why Netflix consistently releases series in this genre, because I think I know the answer already. Netflix hosts content in lots of genres – their philosophy is (apparently) to churn out as much as possible, and hope it finds a niche market. And they’re big enough to afford it even if half of their ideas tank. They also have the SCCU (Stand-up Comedian Cinematic Universe), the ASCU (Awful Sci-fi Cinematic Universe), the GASCU (Gritty Animated Series Cinematic Universe)… You get the idea. The TTCU is just one of many.
So, how does Sex Education compare to other entries? For starters, it’s no 13 Reasons Why, both in terms of style and in terms of impact. Sex Education is far more light-hearted and far less dire (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much). The sexual content will be too explicit for some, but nowhere near the disclaimer level of suicide and rape. The students aren’t pushing an agenda, which is refreshing, and the adults aren’t all incompetent, which is also refreshing.
Then again, the show is not nearly as compelling. For all its controversy, 13 Reasons Why was undeniably captivating, not only because of the gravity of the themes, but because it had a single, driving narrative. And it’s in this regard that Sex Education falls far short. There are certainly storylines to follow, including a genuine twist in the final episode that actually made sense, not an easy feat. But this is background noise – nothing offensive enough to make you stop watching (unless you’re pro-life), nothing urgent enough to make it binge-worthy.
Sex Education is also vastly different from The End of the F***ing World. The latter was like a stylized version of 13 Reasons Why – it left a far more bitter taste and dealt with certain themes far more comically, but it was an intense story with a one-series plot about teenagers coping with death.
If anything, Sex Education is closest in style to Atypical. It’s about quirky students doing everyday things, both mundane and dramatic. Unlike 13 Reasons Why, Atypical benefitted from a second season, because it was structured like a standard sitcom: independent episodes with overarching stories that could stretch for multiple seasons without feeling tedious. Sex Education will do well with multiple seasons, assuming this first go is a hit.
Atypical also worked because it was occasionally educational, yet never felt like a ‘How to raise autistic children’ series. It was about an everyday family which happened to have an autistic child. Sex Education feels the same way – there are some scenes pulled straight from ‘Relationship Counseling 101’, or better yet, ‘Relationship Counseling Mistakes 101’. But it doesn’t feel like a lesson on how to improve your romantic life, it feels like a high school dramedy.
Many of the scenes in Sex Education benefit from their sensitivity and authenticity, yet there are incredibly bizarre moments that completely de-immerse you from the drama: more accurately, any time Lily is on screen (Tanya Reynolds). There were also awkward zooms everytime Otis (Asa Butterfield) masturbates. And even ‘progressive’ viewers like myself may cringe during the ‘It’s my vagina’ sequence.
Also, I couldn’t help but groan when they played ‘Asleep’, almost certainly as an homage to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Which is understandable, given that the main trio of characters are a sexually naive boy who needs to work through his past, his gay friend who is grappling with the harsh reality of his sexuality, and the edgy girl whom everyone objectifies despite her secretly being a kind person.
But the show isn’t all awkward and cliche. The characters are more nuanced than those of 13 Reasons Why, beyond a laughable ‘Wait.. you mean the tough guy was actually the victim??’ Jackson, Adam, Ola and Aimee are all well-developed, and they explore new territory while the main trio walks well-worn narrative ground. Not to mention Gillian Anderson as Jean the sex counselor, who steals each of her scenes with constant analyzing and ironic insensitivity.
Conclusion: Sex Education is a worthwhile installment in the TTCU, which I look forward to seeing more of. It won’t cause a cultural uproar, and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But its blend of real-life issues with sexual comedy, along with a strong cast, make it a nice weekend diversion.