Hello again and Happy New Year.
January is just great, isn’t it? Even in these times of populist nihilism and spite, a person can construct an air of optimism. New year, new beginnings and while it’s chilly outside, we feel warm inside. It won’t last, of course. By the time the slow, damp drip of April is upon us, we’ll be cranky. You know I will.
So let’s start with a discussion about sex education. Don’t sigh, people. And you, yes you over there, stop giggling. In the Ontario neck of the woods, sex-ed is a superhot topic. In fact, as I write this, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario are in court challenging the Ford government’s move to scrap the “health and physical education curriculum” that was introduced in 2015 under the previous Liberal government.
Premier Doug Ford and the sycophants in his government want a 1990s-era sex-ed curriculum. Bless their craven hearts, they want a pre-internet sex-ed strategy. It’s all a bit mind-boggling, this government pretense and delusion that you can go backward in terms of educating youth about sex, sexuality and related matters. It’s the sort of thing that makes it difficult and embarrassing to explain Canada to people in other countries.
Sex Education (streams on Netflix from Friday) is the sort of content that would get Ford in a frothy lather of outrage. (Not an appealing spectacle, I know, and I apologize for introducing an unpleasant image so early in the year.) An eight-part drama/comedy, it’s saucy and sometimes absurd but ultimately it’s a deeply felt coming-of-age story that has enormous empathy for teenagers facing the joys and terrors of sex.
A British production for Netflix and written by the young playwright Laurie Nunn, it spins out, at first, like a British riff on all the tropes and motifs of an American high-school drama. We meet Otis (Asa Butterfield), who is heading back to school after a summer break, with some trepidation. It’s established early on that he’s what you might call sexually repressed. His best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is openly gay but, you can tell, a bit terrified, too. There are school bullies and cool kids who sneer at others, while the boys’ classmate Maeve (Emma Mackey), the object of desire for many boys who like girls, cultivates a bellicose exterior to hide her intelligence and acumen. It feels familiar, this setting, and there are raging hormones everywhere.
The twist is that Otis’s mom, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a rather well-known and divorced – now-dating – sex therapist. While Otis watches the kids around him go bonkers about sex and relationships, his home life is drenched in casual talk about a healthy, open approach to sexual desires and difficulties. (“You and your mum are freaks," a classmate tells him on visiting his house.) He’d heard it all; he’s picked up a lot of useful information, even while he’s a bit confused about his own feelings and peccadilloes, or lack of them.
What unfolds in the early going is not going to entertain everyone. Sex Education is clearly the work of a young writer unafraid to mix genres and shock viewers with some cringe-comedy that gives way to deep melancholy. Also, be aware that in the early episodes there is a lot of sex. In case you‘re squeamish about that. It’s just that none of it is happy or joyous sex. That’s where education comes in, and in an absurdist turn that still makes sense in the context, Otis becomes an educator. Actually, in another comic riff on an American entertainment staple, the series veers toward a sex-problem of the week format.
It’s worth your time for several reasons. First, Anderson is exquisitely acute as Jean. Confident, acid-tongued and blasé about sex, Jean is a wonderful creation. There is also an intricate, literate quality to the drama. At school, these confused kids are obliged to study Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which amounts to more than a surface joke. And, for all its elements of farce (“Give me the Curly Wurly or I will break your face,” a bully informs Eric), it feels grounded in the relatable reality of now. That is, and in contrast to the Ontario government’s shtick, it is about the importance of education as a matter of divulging information rather than suppressing it.
Perhaps most important of all, Sex Education is emphatically the open-hearted vision of a young female writer, one who graduated from the National Film and Television School in Britain as recently as 2012. Bound to get some men of a certain age in a lather. Bound to.