There have been a number of TV shows that truly seem to “get” being a teenager.
I’m not thinking of most of the network family sitcoms, which tend to turn teens into jokebots — adorable little quip-meisters, perhaps, but not authentic. And I’m not thinking of the CW-styled dramas, with their noir and supernatural obsessions. Many of them are smart and entertainingly soapy, but most of those kids live 10 lifetimes in the course of one season.
The teen shows I’ve loved the most have an intimacy and realism about them; their coming-of-age stories do not unfold in the form of metaphor and genre. The one-season wonder “Freaks and Geeks” is among the best. It portrayed the delicate relationship between a kid’s forming identity and high school social factions, set in the last moments before MTV-bred sophistication took over the world. “Friday Night Lights” is also in the teen TV hall of fame, for the stirring way it showed teenagers struggling to create meaning for themselves in a forgotten American community.
I’m now prepared to add “Sex Education” to the list of teen shows that mean the most to me. The Netflix series, whose fine second season recently came out, is an extraordinarily wise comedy-drama, one that is about sex, yes, but more insistently about honesty, compassion, and self-awareness. The bottom line when it comes to all the hormone-fueled longings and gropings we see in “Sex Education” — the moral of the story, in a non-moralistic way — is E.M. Forster’s famous quote of encouragement from his novel “Howards End”: “Only connect.” The sex and the talk about sex — and there’s plenty of both in “Sex Education” — are always in service of matters of the heart and mind. There’s nothing gratuitous about them; the characters’ sexual identities are integral to who they are and who they want to be as individuals.
The show — which is British, filmed in Wales, and set somewhere vaguely in that region — revolves around a mother and son whose boundaries are unclear, to put it mildly. Otis Milburn (played by the perfectly sympathetic Asa Butterfield) is a teen living with his divorced mother, who is a sex therapist. Otis begins to offer emotion-driven sexual advice to his fellow students, and he is good enough at being what they call “the sex kid” to charge a fee. And yet his own sexual identity is a problem for him, more evasive and suppressed — not surprisingly — the more his mother urges him to open up about it.
Meanwhile, his mother, Jean Milburn, performed by Gillian Anderson at her most playful, is proud of her ability to sleep around without emotional complications — until she forms a challenging emotional attraction to a handyman. She’s proud of her high-level, unashamed understanding of sexuality, but she has no idea how often she crosses parent-child boundaries with Otis in a difficult way for him. So what, she thinks, if she’s dating Otis’s girlfriend’s father, or giving advice at Otis’s school. She’s enlightened, but there are critical — and often comical — blind spots. Jean’s favorite phrase, which the show deploys both seriously and humorously: “This is a safe space.”
One thing I’ve found remarkable is that while the Milburns (and their picturesque and lived-in house) are drawn in wonderful detail, they’re surrounded by a large ensemble of supporting characters who are also made quite specific. At times, “Sex Education” reminds me of “Orange Is the New Black” in the depth of its bench; thanks to the writers and actors, there are so many stories in play, and each one is blessed with a backstory and its own idiosyncrasies. Jackson, the son of a high-performing lesbian couple who are highly invested in his swimming competitions; Adam, the humorless headmaster’s son, whose sexuality dogs him; Maeve, a bad girl squandering her potential, tested in season two with the return of her absentee, drug-addicted mother; Lily, a writer of alien erotica, who is desperate to lose her virginity; Ola, who wants to be sexually awakened by Otis; Viv, a brilliant student who can’t speak around her crush. The list goes on and on, each kid so confused, and so likable.
The most likable may be Eric, skillfully and naturally played by Ncuti Gatwa as a gay teen who is fine with his sexuality — but dealing with others’ discomfort. Yes, it’s not a brand-new idea. Indeed, much of “Sex Education” revisits high school situations we’ve seen before, from the mean girls to the bullies. And yet each time, show creator Laurie Nunn gives the trope a new twist, or treats it with a new sense of frankness or sweetness. Some of the kids are discovering their own sexual fluidity, others are learning to see behind the surfaces of others, and the most powerful relationship on this show about love and sex may be the platonic friendship between Eric and Otis; their open affection for each other on school campus warms the heart.
Another remarkable thing: The adults. The new season pays more attention to the parents of the kids, as they deal with their own sex-based issues. The show isn’t necessarily pointing to the parents as the ones who screw up their kids with bad advice or, arguably worse, no advice. The parents we see, including the headmaster and his wife, but most of all Jean, who finds herself perimenopausal in season two, have the same sexual issues as the teens.
It’s part of the show’s generous overall point of view — that all of the characters, young and old, are human, flawed, struggling, and, occasionally, triumphing.