Netflix’s Americanised British teen comedy Sex Education is deeply weird

Plus: Bandersnatch.

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In Sex Education, Gillian Anderson plays the kind of couples therapist you definitely won’t find down at the offices of Relate, wearing a fluffy sweater and statement earrings. What I mean is that in addition to her fondness for one-night stands and the fact she is apt to ask her clients some pretty out-there questions in precisely the same voice that she might use to order an Americano – “Marjorie, how are you getting on with your penis?” – Dr Jean is also in possession of what seems to me (innocent-face emoji) to be a quite magnificent collection of dildos. One of these, hanging on her consulting room wall as if it were just a decorative plate or her degree certificate, is carved from wood and so long she could certainly use it as a walking stick were she ever to suffer a bad sprain of the ankle. Others, arranged in rows in her drawers like so many T-shirts, are made from rubber and so… wide that at first I took them (even-more-innocent-face emoji) for jelly moulds.

If all this has piqued your interest, please, be calm. This isn’t really Anderson’s show. Sex Education is basically a comedy about randy sixth-formers – think The Inbetweeners, only 10,000 times less funny – one of whom happens to be Dr Jean’s geeky son, Otis (Asa Butterfield). When the series opens, Otis feels nothing but embarrassment about his mother, especially after the school bully sends a clip to everyone’s mobiles of her briskly masturbating an aubergine on television. However, things are about to change. The information Ma has doled out to him so incontinently down the years will shortly come into its own. Maeve (Emma Mackey), the school’s resident gorgeous, pouting bad girl, noticed his exceptionally adult empathy when the aforementioned school bully took three Viagra and thought his dick would explode – Otis talked to him calmly from the next door lavatory cubicle until the inflationary crisis had passed – and has now decided to put him to work. He’ll sort out the students’ sexual problems; she’ll invoice them for the service.

It’s rather bracing, in this cultural moment, to find a TV series so casually accepting of teenage sex (everyone is having it, and if they’re not they want to be, and the script treats this as normal and healthy and good). But the show is also deeply weird. Set in a strangely Americanised England – the school corridors are lined with Breakfast Club-style lockers and the head boy wears a baseball jacket in its colours – it comes with retro British touches, too, such as when the bully nicks a Curly Wurly, moulds it into the shape of a turd, and swallows it whole.

It exists somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, neither one thing nor another, when it needs to be particular to the point of obscurity to be truly funny (this was the secret of Peep Show’s success). Still, if you’re in the market for sexual euphemisms, here they are in abundance, from “a tromboner” (in this instance, an aroused boy who plays a brass instrument) to “jacking your beanstalk” (you probably get the picture) – and I must admit that the former made me laugh, largely because, in the matter of telescoping slides and embouchure, I’m about 13, and that is my burden and I will carry it.

While we’re on weird stuff, what about Bandersnatch, the Black Mirror one-off about a computer game designer who’s going quietly mad, in which the viewer gets to choose the/an ending? Personally, when it comes to storytelling, I dislike choice. I want to be in someone else’s hands – that’s the whole point. But I did my best, dutifully pondering each option, even when I couldn’t have cared less (when I was asked whether our young hero, Stefan, should listen to the Thompson Twins or a Now compilation). I tried not to worry about missing out – would I get the right kind of ending, one of what its producers have referred to as “golden eggs”? – and to put from my mind the fact that, at school, the kind of boys who read choose-your-own adventures liked Marillion and tumuli and wore Hai Karate on special occasions such as Asimov’s birthday, or whatever.

The whole thing was tedious: confusing, repetitive, dilatory. Even the sight of a billboard ad for Matey – the film is set in 1984, when every avocado bathroom suite had a bottle, and I was rapidly approaching my teenage zenith – couldn’t stir me from my apathetic stupor. Is interactivity one of television’s possible futures? Some think it might be. But I’m not convinced. Stop-start. Stop-start. It’s the TV equivalent of being stuck in heavy traffic. 

Sex Education Netflix
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Netflix

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?