How Netflix’s Sex Education masterfully explores human connection, sexuality and social identity

We don’t deserve a series like Sex Education. I have not seen a TV series so perfectly address the fundamental every day aspects of the human psyche. The characters and story subvert almost every stereotype and cliché set by American teen dramas. The characters feel like real people with real connections and real problems, and the series makes you care for them as if you knew them personally. It explores the most important aspects of human connection; from a believable friendship between a straight man and a gay man, to a father-son relationship fuelled by toxic masculinity. The representation the series provides is also unparalleled. It not only contains almost every aspect of sexuality, from heterosexuality to asexuality, but sets the bar for other media to portray these things as the norm and that they don’t need to be a fundamental aspect of character’s stories. For example, if someone has two lesbian female parents, it is simply accepted and is never even addressed within the story. The series quickly establishes that the most important aspect of social identity is that it’s okay to be who you are. It breaks down the expectations that are placed upon us and shows that regardless of culture, background or sexuality, there is nothing more important than being comfortable in your own skin.

From the very first scene of season 1, the series truly shows how complex human connection is. Sex merely scratches the surface of human connection, and the pressure society places on teenagers to ‘get it over with’ often distorts what it is they really want. Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), the series’ main protagonist, is a fairly average good-hearted teenager with zero sexual experience. His mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) on the other hand is a very open-minded qualified sex therapist. This provides Otis with a goldmine of knowledge about sex. This leads him to begin running a sex therapy clinic at school with the much more reserved yet rebellious Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey); providing students with advice on their sex lives to make some quick cash. However, the drawback of all this is that Otis is unable to apply such knowledge to himself. He understands the importance of communication and mutual understanding between two sexually-attracted individuals but never really applies this to his own relationships. In other words, he never ‘takes his own advice’, which is something I believe nearly all of us are guilty of. One of the most important and likeable relationships in the show is Otis’ friendship with Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Eric fulfils the stereotype of the main protagonists’ black, gay best friend, but does it in a way which also flips the stereotype on its head. Eric is not simply an object solely used to contribute to the protagonists’ story, but is his own fleshed-out character with as many ups and downs as anyone else. One of the most interesting plot lines of the series is Eric’s father coming to terms with Eric as an openly gay black man coming from a culture where such things are heavily frowned upon. As such, the series makes Otis and Eric have the one of most believable friendships I’ve seen on the small or big screen. All the small interactions they have really show how big a part of each other’s lives they are, and when their friendship is tested you really feel the anguish at the thought of them falling out.

The show masterfully deals with social acceptance and identity by showing how much it truly affects personal relationships. In this regard, Maeve is one of the most interesting and complex characters in the series. She is another example of a subverted stereotype; initially she comes across as the stubborn, abrasive, strong-female lead type girl, but as the series progresses she shows hints that she has a more sensitive side. The show does a brilliant job of showing these traits are a believable part of Maeve’s personality, and not just to fulfil the stereotype. Maeve is not a people person and it shows – she doesn’t like other people and they don’t like her, but she doesn’t care and she fully embraces this. Her lack of social identity and abrasiveness is almost a defence mechanism against people judging her for who she really is. Without spoiling the story, the series shows how much you can really empathise with a person like Maeve and how important it is to have at least one person you can truly be yourself around. Maeve’s best friend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) is one of my favourite characters in the series. She is a care-free, people-loving girl who simply wants to enjoy life. She sticks up for people even when they aren’t there, and she’s not afraid to show how much she cares about people, even if this compromises her social identity and self-image. There is a really powerful story arc in series 2 with Aimee involving sexual assault, and the series masterfully deals with the repercussions this has on a person’s identity and self-image. Again, without spoiling, all I can say is that one scene in particular had me welling up with its message, and there were several times I just wanted to give poor Aimee a hug!

These are just some of the characters who have a pivotal role in the series. I don’t think there is a single character whose story arc I found uninteresting, and I could probably go on all day about how each and every one is interesting in their own way. Every character, teen or adult, seems to be masterfully written to encompass every day issues we all face; including toxic masculinity, sexual identity and social pressure. Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) for instance is a tall, intimidating, jock-type teenager who constantly bullies Eric and others around him to assert himself. However, as the series progresses, Adam’s troubled relationship with his father (Alistair Petrie), combined with an internal battle between this overly-masculine front he puts on and his sexual identity suggests there are much more deeply rooted reasons for the way he is. You end up empathising with characters like Adam exceedingly more than you would have originally expected to. Even minor characters like the nerdy anime-loving Lily (Tanya Reynolds) and the popular people-pleaser Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) have an interesting role in the wider story. We can learn a lot from people like Adam, Lily, and Jackson; that being who you really are rather than who people expect you to be is one of the most powerful messages to what it means to be human.

I don’t like using the word ‘masterpiece’ to describe things, but when it comes to Sex Education, I cannot think of another word which so perfectly encapsulates how well the series is written. I have never seen a series or film so perfectly address the every day pressures we all face, and how they affect our personal identities and relationships. Humans are social animals – we are literally hardwired from birth to interact with other humans, because our survival depends on it. The writers of Sex Education know this, and they place it in a time and place during which it is most important and something we can all empathise with – adolescence. This series inspires me to write things like this and get into filmmaking. Every actor in this series gives their performance their all, and they don’t look like your star-studded overly-attractive actors you see in typical film and TV. They look like normal people – normal people who you could believe you know personally. And that is why Sex Education is a masterpiece. It perfectly balances believability with empathy – it’s simply a series about a bunch of normal people trying to figure out who they are, and as human beings, sometimes that’s all we need to see.