Netflix’s new offering Sex Education could fit into a number of categories – comedy, high school, coming-of-age, romance if you want to get mushy with it – but the more interesting categorisation is in the medium. It’s on Netflix, so it technically fits the rather rough definition of television we’re working with these days which covers streaming services as well, but in terms of actual content, it has the feel of, more than anything in the world, a smutty Harry Potter fanfiction.
I make this reference because Harry Potter is probably the biggest fish in the fanfiction sea. The Potter franchise went stratospheric very quickly and stayed that way – J.K. Rowling has more money than the queen, and Warner Bros. are still taking bites of this apple with the Fantastic Beasts flicks. And from very early on, there was the fanfiction, a giddy, dizzying array of fanfiction, a great deal of which was obscene. How dirty are we talking? Put it this way, what finally booted the once-massive blogging site Livejournal off its throne was its ill-fated attempt to crack down on fanfiction involving rape and/or incest.
Sex Education bears an 18 certificate, but it doesn’t quite go that far. It’s light entertainment, not The Killing Fields. But there is a comparison to be drawn here, and here it is: a great deal of this Harry Potter fanfiction, whether it was mucky or pure as the driven snow, was written by Americans who were trying to portray a specifically British setting. And this led to – well, I hesitate to say problems, I don’t want to frame this as an intrinsically bad thing, let us say ‘moments of cultural tension’. Actually, that’s too neutral, make it ‘moments of cultural oddity’. Like anachronisms in space instead of time.
One of the little pieces of subcultural parlance that the Harry Potter fanfiction community developed was ‘pepperjacking’, after one notable fanfic gave Hermione an insatiable love of pepperjack cheese because the author liked it. Simply put, it’s a writer cramming in things which are of special interest to them, whether it makes sense or not. The kind of Anglo-American mashup that Sex Education features is sort of like that, only on an unconscious level – the writers go with what they know, even if it’s something very specific to their culture and completely absent from the culture they’re trying to portray.
(I describe this tendency with some sympathy. I once wrote a piece of short fiction set in America, which turned out so inescapably British in tone that a reader asked ‘why are the police carrying guns?’)
Now, Sex Education is set in a school, and if you couldn’t hear the accents you could easily mistake it for 90210. It’s not quite like Hill Valley High School was cut wholesale out of Southern California and transplanted into the Home Counties, they’re aware there’s something called ‘sixth form’ and it remarkably doesn’t have cheerleaders wandering around leading cheer, but there’s myriad little things which are just off. Stuff like the preponderance of varsity jackets, and the school logos everywhere (even my dreadful state school bore a coat of arms), and the cliques – which obviously isn’t exclusively an American thing, but introducing the popular kids as they stand around their fancy motor being catty has a certain texture to it.
(Curiously, sometimes it goes too far the other direction – the school’s headmaster is visually indistinguishable from a cabinet minister circa the Sir Alec Douglas-Home premiership.)
Speaking of kids, another distinctly American tendency is the fact that many of these supposed sixteen-to-eighteen-year-olds are clearly played by actors in their twenties and thirties. This is an understandable decision given the state of child labour laws, and particularly if you’re going to have them stroll around undraped, as Sex Education does, but they could at least get people who look younger – Asa Butterfield is suitably hobbitish, but the rest of the ‘child’ cast look like they failed their leaving exams several years in a row. The Inbetweeners, Britain’s own cringy sixth form sitcom, did a masterful job of procuring actors with an eerily youthful look – it helped that they often had Greg Davies towering over them, but still, Simon Bird’s going to be IDed for buying booze until he actually goes grey.
As for the show’s approach to sex – very much the cornerstone of the whole edifice – it’s a weird one. Having attractive young people running around all fucking each other doesn’t seem to jive with fumbling British reserve, but then, neither does it seem so very American in tone, given their media’s traditional hatred and fear of sex, and the long shadow of hardline Protestant influences. The best way to describe it is possibly as a kind of never-ending spring break – or, alternatively, like a Carry On film or Ray Cooney farce for an era when you can get away with broadcasting the image of a nipple.
The show isn’t meant to be a realistic representation of any culture’s attitudes to sex, of course – it’s a work of fiction, it’s heightened reality. While Britain and America are famously separated by a common language, they can both come together in their profound awkwardness around the stuff in their trousers, but despite what both our nations seem to think about those on the continent, that’s a universal thing, like enjoying movies and walks, or respiring. There are those who can be explicit and up-front about it, but they’re a rare breed. This, if anything, is Sex Education’s whole thesis.
The master of the kind of raunchy cringe comedy Sex Education aims for is, and remains, Mitchell and Webb’s Peep Show. Yeah, it’s cruel of me to judge everything against the finest examples of the genre, but I’m certainly not going to compare it to The Room. But Sex Education’s wider scope – and, it must be said, broadcast media’s ever-increasing permissiveness – gives it that much more fertile ground to distil awkwardness from. When all’s said and done, Peep Show centred on two basically heterosexual men, whose desires seldom went beyond vanilla, and for all its brilliance that side of things is well-trodden ground.
Sex Education’s sexual-pecadillo-of-the-week format, meanwhile, allows a huge amount of scope – and is fairly similar to the Australian comedy The Little Death, essentially a series of tenuously linked skits each focusing on a particular fetish. While it’s ever-so-slightly unfinished and received mixed reviews, fans of Sex Education would do well to seek it out – curiously, most of the really damning reactions came from American critics, who, to a hack, found some of the subjects a little too coarse to be funny. When you’re talking about rape fantasies, that’s perhaps fair enough, but a woman finding she gets turned on when her boyfriend cries, and then engineering upsetting situations? To quote another of fiction’s great sexual neurotics, that is by definition a farce.