In the last few years I’ve found myself oddly attracted to three romcoms. You’re The Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Catastrophe are something akin to a distant orbit from the genre’s pillars, yet deliver in engaging ways. YTW’s central couple are terrible people who rebel against the love they want, Crazy asks the question of which love is more important, the ‘one-true-pairing’ or self-love and Catastrophe just sort of skips the genre’s foreplay.
Sex Education, however, is a romcom where the central two help others have the good sexy times. And if you think I’m going to lace the rest of this with as much innuendo as possible, well…maybe.
There are tons of things I could talk about here, from the straight-up bizarre cultural and temporal mishmash that makes up the setting, to the fact that all the sexualities and identities represented are done so fairly and not for laughs, that it can be absolutely hilarious (I don’t think I’ve ever seen something parody the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene quite as amazingly as this) and brutally sad. I could also talk about how it looks gorgeous, has a killer sound-track and somehow, somehow, is so obvious at times that I’m prepared to let it slide even though I definitely feel other shows would have me rolling my eyes at the fact.
I want to spend all this time gushing about the cast who are excellent. I don’t want to dismiss Gillian Anderson’s minimal but perfect screen-time as a mother unsure of how to approach her very mature son, whilst also being a sex therapist who makes no efforts to hide that fact from him. Nor do I want to downplay how affecting I found Ncuti Gatwa’s performance of Eric, a joyously flamboyant gay young-adult tumbling through a world that isn’t exactly heaping much needed love or acceptance towards him.
Instead I find myself wanting to focus on Asa Butterfield’s Otis and Emma Mackey’s Maeve because those were the characters that resonated incredibly strongly with me. Pasty nerd and free-spirit embark on an undercover operation to help their peers with their sexual relationships. Except that’s such a reduction that the show intentionally sets it up only so that it can demolish it as it goes on. Otis would in any other scenario be The Nice Guy and in this, he is. Except he’s a nice guy who accepts no for an answer, with no attempts at manipulation or deception highlighted by the one time he tries it, not liking it and then not even getting what he wants and accepting it all. He never tries to be anything to anyone, only his truest self. Maeve is…
Maeve, for me, is the heart of the show. I think that’s entirely down to Emma Mackey. She inhibits the character that I believe it’s her and don’t get me wrong, Butterfield is perfect, but Mackey is more perfect. These are two characters who are real, damnit and you’re not going to be able to take that away from me. Everyone else is putting in a quality performance, but the way Otis and Maeve move helps them stand-out. Don’t confuse this as me saying these characters/actors lift the show to a watchable state either; besides everything else the writing does that alone, but for characters that have as much presence as they do boy you can see why.
The first episode had a line in it that I haven’t been able to forget. When Otis and Maeve end up working together in a class, Otis reluctantly goes to sit next to his friend-in-the-making and after a death glare from her, he remarks “I get it, you’re mean.” Otis is the kind of person who even states that he’s happy being the nobody, but that simply enables him to be highly observant and empathetic. The thing about it that sticks is clearly just how much it impacted on Maeve. Otis knew the shield she put up in front of her and he straight up does not care. He’s not rude with it, nor intends any malice, but is his subtle way of saying ‘I get you.’ Maeve, having only one friend who can’t even be seen with her in public, does not know how to react to this.
It’s the subtlety of that line that the show anchors itself around. Beneath its raunchy surface lies something that pretends it isn’t quite as deep as it goes on to demonstrate. The show practically begs you to engage it on the wrong terms just so it can upend it all. And it works. It invites you to be tricked by it, despite it absolutely throwing out obvious plot-lines after another.
Except that is for the ending of the final episode. When I started writing this I was very angry with it. I wasn’t going to not watch the next series that’ll inevitably happen, but I was going to go in being severely miffed. It takes one step too far revelling in obviousness that I dislike not because of said obviousness, but because I just think it didn’t make sense. Without going into detail, there are certain tenets, those things everyone expects to happen in each genre; romantic comedies come with their own that you already know. Sex Education clips the final hurdle because it feels obliged to include a very specific one.
That said, better to clip the final hurdle than fall at any of the ones before because you’re at least finishing the race. Sex Education is an incredibly enjoyable show that is wide-open about sex and relationships and tells you it’s okay, being a horny teenager is/was weird…which is precisely why the odd setting doesn’t faze me at all, it just helps highlight the right things even more. Given how moreish the show is, you might even say it’s worth a minge watch.
You damn well know I’m not.