Netflix’s Sex Education Updates John Hughes for the Internet Age
It goes without saying that Sex Education shouldn’t be viewed at work. And even if you watch it at home, you may want to turn the volume waaaayyy down before you click on the first episode, because that opening scene is…let’s say it’s auditorily vivid, in a way that may cause your next-door neighbor to look sideways at you next time you meet.
Sex Education, a new Netflix Original that launched a few days ago, is a classic sex comedy, after all—hilarious, physical, raunchy, and by no means subtle. As with all high school sex comedies, the setup revolves around a sensitive and awkward high schooler—the charming Otis Milburn in this case, the “weird sex kid who looks like a Victorian ghost.”
Otis (Asa Butterfield) earned that description not because he’s particularly adept in bed; in fact, he’s tragically bad at being a horny teenager, unable even to choke the chicken satisfactorily, so to speak. But he is the only son of a prominent sex therapist, Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson, in a comic role for once), which means that Otis is growing up surrounded by the kind of professional expertise that his peers would pay good money for.
And Otis apparently has absorbed his mother’s expertise by osmosis: While he himself has more than his fair share of hang-ups, he’s very good at dispensing advice to his peers. It doesn’t take too long before Maeve, a street-smart schoolmate—and Otis’ secret crush, naturally—figures out that this talent could be monetized, with Otis as a sort of underground Dr. Margie Holmes for the high school set, and Maeve as his agent.
It sounds like your bog-standard high school sex comedy so far. It’s no surprise that the story structure becomes pretty predictable pretty quickly: the episodes begin with Otis’ schoolmates in flagrante delicto, caught up in a sexual situation that becomes embarrassing very quickly (see warning above re: turning down the volume for the opening scenes). And because teens are great at finding ways to embarrass themselves sexually, this should be pretty straightforward, no?
Fortunately, Sex Education is far more than your run-of-the-mill comedy that mines the cringiest of our collective sexual memories. Otis, being both empathetic and wise beyond his years, dispenses really good advice that cuts through the obvious, physical aspects of the sexual act, and zeroes in on the participants’ emotional baggage—and there’s plenty of that. Teenagers aren’t just sacks of hormonal horniness, the viewer is reminded: They’re people, too, prone to having issues as much as the next guy, just less equipped to handle it.
If Sex Education seems to approach the sex-comedy tropes with a surprising amount of depth and nuance, most of the credit should go to its main creators, writer Laurie Nunn and director Ben Taylor. Here they talk to us how they, as children of the 80s who grew up on the golden age of teenage dramedies, have made Sex Education a loving homage to John Hughes that is also a product of the Internet age.
Q: Sex Education looks so different, and it’s almost atemporal as well—in terms of where it’s set, and when it’s set. Is that deliberate?
Laurie Nunn: The script has always had quite a heightened sort of nostalgic feel to them. It’s been influenced by American film and TV shows—they played a large part of my teenage years, so that is something I would always come back to. And then Ben shares a love of that genre, so we brought that to the visual style. But it’s definitely set in Britain, but we made a very conscious choice to have that sort of American throwback nostalgic John Hughes feel to it.
Ben Taylor: We wanted to make a show with lockers from Breakfast Club, but it was also important to me when I read the script and connected with it so much and large parts of it is, like Laurie said, because I grew up with this genre and loving this genre. But there’s something about the proposition of the show and the proposition about it, about his role as a therapist on campus—in a world where Google exists, how could this happen, how could it be a feasible proposition? And I think what Laurie really beautifully writes an episode where it’s, well, yes you have access to that, yes you have access to limitless porn, and all these trappings of modern technology, what it comes down to is the human connection and communication and conversation that has far more in common with the 80s, that John Hughes world, in terms of that it’s more of an analog world than a digital world in terms of storytelling we knew that we wanted to have iPhones in it and we wanted to have text messaging in it, but we wanted it to have that texture of something that felt more familiar to us when we would watch movies from that age, but we wanted something that would be a good template for the universal storytelling of kids. The same problems that they were having in Chicago in John Hughes’ films are the same problems that they’re having now in the UK in 2018. So stylistically it was a deliberate choice to have it dislocated from geographically knowing exactly where it was—it was mid-Atlantic, you would say: American influenced but very much British ingredients.
One of the reasons why I so aggressively wanted to win this job was that I’d grown up watching a lot of American movies and this genre as I say, but I was frustrated that the British school experience wasn’t portrayed with positivity or color or warmth or hope—it always tends to be sticking two fingers up and saying I’m out of here as soon as I graduate (chuckles). Whereas there’s an American feel where you know that it’s riddled with anxieties and angst, but you still look back at them as the best years of your life, so we wanted to have that background to set the story up against.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the shows that informed Sex Education?
Laurie: For me, it was definitely film and TV as well, so there was Dawson’s Creek was massive for me, and things like My So-Called Life—there was just one season of that, but it was magic. Film-wise, yes, there were the John Hughes stuff and also 10 Things I Hate About You was one of my favorites, and I think it still stands up when you watch it—the script is banging, it’s so good.
Ben: That became one of the central tonal references, 10 Things I Hate About You.
Laurie: Yeah, the teenagers are very intelligent and they speak in very intelligent ways but they’re not adults. They still sort of have a very teenage sense and a teenage mind, whereas in some other teen shows they’re definitely 28 year olds pretending to be 16. And I think that’s something we wanted to avoid; we wanted our characters to feel very much their age, and at the same time they have that amazing thing that teenagers have when they sort of know more than adults do, because they’re so in the moment.
Ben: One other that I’d throw in is Freaks and Geeks, an essential one, which like My So-Called Life, is one season but it’s so unbelievable and it’s so influential.
Laurie: That was something that was important to us as well, trying to take the tried-and-tested tropes and finding ways to make them feel fresh and modern—take the characters and show a different side to them. Same with some of the storytelling tropes that you see quite often in teen films and TV, and try and really ask the questions [that need to be asked, like for example], should you be making that bet about that girl? Because maybe she hasn’t actually given you consent or maybe you should ask to kiss someone before you do kiss them. I think a lot of those conversations are being had now, and we wanted to inject that into the storytelling to sort of update the genre.