What Sex Education learns from America

With season three of the hit show now imminent, Sex Education has done something really rather different for British teen comedy drama…

Ncuti Gatwa and Asa Butterfield

With season three of the hit show now out, Sex Education has done something really rather different for British teen comedy drama…

Stories about adolescence and coming into adulthood have long been a cultural fascination. There’s something universal about them, and cinemas hasn’t been short of such projects. But in recent times, it’s television that’s picked up the mantle, a medium where it seems there’s more room to be bold. 

Sex Education is a British teen comedy-drama that began in 2019. It stars Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn, a sixth form student. He becomes an informal sex and relationship therapist for his peers, in the image of his mum (Gillian Anderson) who is formally established in the field. Through this, the show is able to explore a number of issues and themes head-on via the perspective of a developing adolescent understanding. It became a very quick hit for Netflix, the streamer who backed it.

Since its release, one constant point of conversation around the show has been its style, especially in relation to its setting. Sex Education is an aesthetically thoughtful show, with bright colours, unique costumes and occasionally flashy direction. Though it takes place in the UK, the show employs a visual language that clearly invokes American teen media; students hang around their lockers and athletes roam the school in uniform. There’s a similar sense of displacement with the show’s setting: despite taking place in the modern day, its costume design regularly feels of another era.

This focus on escapist glamour is unusual when considering the canon of British young adult media. After all, this is a space that’s typically relied on some level of realism, or at the very least relatability. Shows like Skins employ an often grimy, unglamorous aesthetic and put their characters through very real struggles, such as addiction, grief and identity. Though not without moments of levity and likable characters, these shows paint a picture of the real world and how traumatic it can be to grow up into it, arguably in continuity with a longstanding tradition of British social realist cinema.

Similarly, British TV comedy has always had a realist streak, often in service of creating moments of discomfort, albeit inextricable from the budget scales it’s been produced at. The Inbetweeners, maybe the most iconic teen comedy of its time is an example of this, produced on a low budget and occasionally visually straining within those boundaries. Both of these approaches create a tone that’s grounded and relatable though, presenting images that audiences could easily see themselves in and stories that reflect a real world. 

The aim is often not to tell audiences that everything will be okay, but instead that they’re definitely not alone. Even shows for younger audiences like Tracy Beaker have more in common with Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher than Hannah Montana.

It’s a stark difference from the young adult media produced in and imported from the United States, which is often glamorous, steeped in excess and dreams. Filmmakers like John Hughes presented adolescence as a moment of glory, and often freedom. 2010s teen shows like Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars or The Vampire Diaries exist in a space of mostly uninterrogated wealth, with their stories and characters dipping into a level of melodrama.

It’s not a failing on the part of the shows but it means they provide a very different, escapist pleasure. They don’t aim to be an accurate depiction of teenage life. Instead they present an experience of youth that’s desirable and often their stories take place around things that are unrealistic by design. Audiences don’t tune in to see themselves reflected back but instead to see a version of youth that makes sense in ways that real life often doesn’t. The presence of a malicious conspiracy or a fantastical force provides a dramatic motivation that is differently relatable.

This is the space that Sex Education exists in. Its Technicolor aesthetics, neatly drawn archetypes and concept that requires some suspension of disbelief share far more DNA with American-produced media than almost anything coming out of the UK. Its story and setting are shaped around the idealised American high school experience more so than the Sixth Form experience it purports to depict. And it doesn’t only look like an American show, it tells its story like one. 

Ultimately, what separates Sex Education from the existing canon of British teen media is the role that aspiration plays. Its characters’ lives are romantic, with highs as high as its lows are low. The setup of Otis solving his peers’ problems offers the sense that his own problems can be solved too.

This isn’t to say the show never aims to reflect reality, but its approach is a constantly hopeful one. This shift in outlook is a big part of why Sex Education has been so popular because it’s not the kind of story that young people in the UK are used to seeing about their lives. There’s an emotional earnestness that feels new: characters are allowed to be melodramatic and make grand statements about their wants in a way that feels genuinely different. If a character in The Inbetweeners did almost anything that the leads of Sex Education have, it would be the butt of a joke.

Still, it’s worth considering what else this shift means. Sex Education, in its attempts to present a romantic, Hollywood idea of adolescence unfortunately also transplants Hollywood ideas of wealth. Though co-lead Maeve (Emma Mackey) does occasionally discuss struggling with money and lives in a caravan park, the show is largely uninterested in the perspective of class.

This feels like a disappointing step back in a genre that has historically been able to represent the lives of people from working class backgrounds, or at least present an idea of teen life that cash isn’t required to achieve. It’d be hugely reductive to call this a uniquely American influence but the financial freedom the show is allowed as a flagship Netflix title will inevitably bleed into its storytelling as well.

Sex Education is a fascinating show though. As the look and feel of prestige TV becomes more accessible and more of a standard it will likely feel like less of an outlier but as it stands, its approach is genuinely fresh and incredibly charming. Its characters feel real and it’s rewarding to see their aspirations and conflicts played big, as if they really matter. This comes at a cost that’s worth acknowledging, but equally there’s a universal relatability in how the show treats its characters. 

The onus to perfect this stylistic balance hangs on its shoulders, as arguably the first show of its type from the UK to attempt what it’s doing. But that’s unfair. It’s trying things, and pathfinding. It’s doing it really rather well too. 

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