Sex Education review: Gillian Anderson's Netflix comedy is eager to please but tonally confused

Although tapping coming-of-age classics for inspiration, the series is much too blunt and upfront about its sexual preoccupations to register as warm-hearted

Ed Power
Friday 11 January 2019 09:20 GMT
Sex Education: Official Netflix Trailer

A sex farce filmed in contemporary Wales and inspired by the great American teen comedies of the Eighties might seem like an uncharacteristically risqué new chapter for Gillian Anderson, who traumatised geeks across the universe by quitting The X-Files last year. Yet, here she is, portraying a chilly bedroom therapist and mother to dysfunctional teen Otis (Asa Butterfield of Ender’s Game) with her characteristic intensity.

Alas, Dana Scully devotees hoping to discover another side to Anderson risk having their tiny nerd hearts broken all over again. Equivalent disappointment awaits anyone anticipating a tearjerking rollercoaster comparable to The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the coming-of-age classics writer Laurie Nunn (daughter of theatre director Trevor) is clearly tapping for inspiration. Netflix’s Sex Education is much too blunt and upfront about its sexual preoccupations to register as warm-hearted – a game of slap and tickle mostly about the slapping.

Anderson, far from nurturing the pratfaller within, is her usual diffident self as the severe Dr Jean Milburn, who picks up and disposes of lovers as if trekking to the recycling centre. All the while she exhibits a screeching lack of self-awareness that runs contrary to the cringe comedy Nunn and director Ben Taylor (Catastrophe) elsewhere milk for chuckles. She is beyond embarrassment when all everyone else seems to do is turn red and wait for the ground to swallow them.

Otis, for instance, is a pressure cooker of insecurities, though Sex Education is uninterested in exploring the degree to which these have been fostered by his unorthodox mother. When not fretting about his underpants prowess, he and gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) have their work cut out avoiding school bully Adam (Connor Swindells). Adam meanwhile has performance issues of his own with girlfriend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood).

The ensemble also includes emotionally withholding cool girl Maeve (Emma Mackey, apparently impersonating Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad) and cocky new head boy Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling). All share a fascination with sex and lack the sweetness and vulnerability that united the characters in John Hughes films such as the aforementioned Breakfast Club.

Nunn deserves credit for putting sexual frankness at the centre of a Netflix series and the show’s forthright depiction of young people’s messy personal lives feels like a forward step from Skins (too grim) or The Inbetweeners (too giggly). Yet, given this confidence, it’s curious the humour should rely so heavily on embarrassment, such as when Otis is humiliated by the screening in class of a sex ed video featuring his mother suggestively stroking a root vegetable.

Sex Education suffers further for not being grounded in a distinctive time and place. It’s shot in Wales, the characters all have English accents, yet the classroom hierarchies – dividing geek from nerd etc – are straight from the halcyon days of the American high school movie. Just as disorientating, everyone dresses as if in the Eighties and nobody owns a mobile phone, yet we are explicitly told that the setting is the 21st century. Eager to please but confused, Sex Education could do with a stint on the therapist’s couch itself.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in