Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) could read the Maricopa County phonebook for eight hours and it would probably be the most riveting television of the year. Instead, probably for the better, she has opted to star in Netflix’s splendid new “Sex Education,” a British coming-of-age dramedy brimming with charm and sincerity — and yes, considerably better than the phonebook.
Lovely as it is, “Sex Education” isn’t for the puritanical. If the snort-inducing, did-they-really-just-say-that, risqué Anglo humor doesn’t offend your delicate American sensibilities, its inclination toward the gross and graphic — on display from the opening scene — almost certainly will. It’s raunchy, explicit and totally unapologetic. But more importantly, it’s smart and bracingly thoughtful, with plenty of heart. And also, um, some other organs.
Anderson’s Jean Milburn is a progressive sex and relationship therapist and doting single mother to Otis (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”), a perpetually mortified, neuroses-ridden 16-year-old so disturbed by his mother’s line of work that he can hardly stand to think about intercourse, let alone do the deed. A certain Philip Larkin poem about parents comes to mind: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” When school bully Adam (Connor Swindells, “The Vanishing”) comes over one day to work on a class project, Otis whizzes about the house sweeping for any lingering phallic statutes or framed Kama Sutra illustrations that might give his mother away.
Alas, to no avail. Adam stumbles into the wrong room — Jean’s private office — and in that horrible teen movie way, Otis’s secret quickly becomes the talk of the hallways. The renegade Maeve (newcomer and Margot Robbie dead ringer Emma Mackey), entrepreneurial and fearsomely beautiful, suggests to Otis that he turn his shame into something of a hustle, using what he’s gathered from being raised by Jean to help his sex-crazed schoolmates sort through their own relationship problems.
Butterfield’s Otis is the rare, refreshing on-screen nice guy who isn’t a Nice Guy. Earnest, sweet and impossible not to root for, he shares his mother’s patience and care in being non-judgmental. And he’s surrounded by an equally winsome supporting cast in Mackey’s Maeve and openly-gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa, “Stonemouth”), both of whom are given their fair share of screen time.
“Sex Education” is littered with high school tropes — there are swim team jocks, catty cliques, lunch money robberies and so forth. But the show nicely subverts those by showcasing everyone’s vulnerabilities. It will inevitably draw comparisons to other teen television in Netflix’s arsenal of originals: the transgressive drama of “13 Reasons Why,” the melancholy-punctuated breeziness of “On My Block,” the referential satire of “American Vandal.” Still, though, “Sex Education” feels like something we haven’t seen before. That’s true on a literal level: It’s shot like a clever, colorful period piece — what the romantic comedy might look like if John Hughes swapped Chicagoland for the expansive English countryside. But it’s also clear in a greater, thematic sense: As ABC airs a season of “The Bachelor” intent on breaking the Guinness World Record for Most Virginity Jokes Made in an Hour, “Sex Education” stands out as television that could so easily be cruel, but instead makes the braver, much more interesting choice to be positive, affirming and joyful.