Warning: If you’re skittish or judgmental about teen sex comedies, stay far away from “Sex Education.” The British show is all about the familiar surge of hormones that has fueled the likes of “Animal House,” “American Pie,” “Porky’s,” and “Superbad.” There is heavy petting, there are inconvenient erections, there are virgins keen to change their status. There are porn drawings in notebooks.
But warning: Stay away at your own peril. The show, whose first eight-episode season is available on Netflix, is one of the sweetest and wisest teen sex comedies going. It takes all the elements of raunchy comedies and schools them in emotional realism — the “Education” part of the title. I went in expecting something coarse and silly, probably sexist, and maybe even a bit creepy; I finished — quickly — with a sense of great respect for show creator Laurie Nunn, who builds a corrective, sex-positive message with an emphasis on character nuance. Most of the kids on “Sex Education” — largely played by unknowns — want to get off, but even more intensely they want to figure out who they are amid all the rampant terrors and hungers about sex.
“Sex Education” joins the upcoming Hulu sex comedy “PEN15” in reinventing — or, in a way, reimagining the purpose of — the genre. “PEN15,” which premieres on Feb. 8, features comedians Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine playing themselves as seventh-graders in 2000, dealing with sexual awakenings while trying to log into AOL. Like “Sex Education,” it intelligently zeroes in on the clash between lust and insecurity. Both shows do find ribald humor in the awkward years, with kids on the verge of adulthood but still feeling childlike needs. But they also view the kids through a lens of empathy and an awareness of teen sexism. They normalize, rather than ridicule, the issues and questions that make many kids feel alone.
The comic setup of “Sex Education” is fairly absurd, but trust me: It plays beautifully. Asa Butterfield is Otis Milburn, who is 16 and lives with his divorced mother. He is emotionally mature but sexually confused; he refuses to masturbate and he has a panic attack at the promise of intercourse, for reasons that become abundantly clear.
I’ll give you a hint: His mother, Jean, played with comic precision by Gillian Anderson, is a sex therapist who insists on talking openly about everything sexual, including Otis’s desires. They’re close — too close. She has awful boundaries, most clearly shown in a scene in which Otis can hear her having sex in her bedroom. When Jean’s lover accidentally enters Otis’s room instead of the bathroom, Otis shruggingly tells him, “Mom doesn’t do boyfriends.” Otis is sensitive and perceptive but has sexual problems, while his mother, so sexually confident and knowledgeable, is emotionally underdeveloped. It’s a great twist for the show, as Jean the expert becomes stymied by her romantic feelings for a plumber, Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt).
Jean’s story is secondary, though. The action revolves around Otis’s new extracurricular activity: He becomes a sex therapist at school, counseling his fellow students on their issues. In each episode, he helps out different people — a guy who can’t reach orgasm with his girlfriend, a girl who is obsessively offering herself to unwilling men — with sage advice. He has no experience, of course, but he has picked up enough information from his mother to make it work. And he is naturally compassionate. Invariably, his guidance has more to do with psychological and emotional barriers than it does with specific sexual activity. As one of his clients tells him, “You’re like my age, but wise. You’re like my mum in a little man’s body.”
His business manager, who gets him clients and collects payments, is a rebel named Maeve (Emma Mackey), who has a lot of sexual experience. Maeve is a strong character, a girl who likes sex and doesn’t care when she gets slut-shamed. She knows she’s more grown up than the others; she has learned that she doesn’t need their approval. One of the wonders of “Sex Education” is how it manages to delve into the emotional and sexual lives all of the characters — not just Otis — in only eight episodes. Another character, Eric, may have the most moving plot. Eric, Otis’s best friend, is gay, and he loves to dress up in wild colors and sexually ambiguous styles. But he must learn what Maeve knows — that it’s more important to be himself than to fold under others’ expectations. The portrait of his relationship with his father is perfectly lovely.
“Sex Education” moves through sexuality, gay-bashing, controlling parents, peer pressure, and, in one particularly fine episode, abortion with the ease of the best teen shows, including “Freaks and Geeks.” Along with “PEN15,” it’s a healing show about talking about sex — but not at the expense of talking about emotions.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.