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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Sex Education is a comedy about a sex therapist (Gillian Anderson) and her semi-miserable, definitely sexually uneasy teenage son (Asa Butterfield). The overall vibe is sweet: Characters are supportive of each other, and they generally treat each other with acceptance and kindness. Notable exceptions are two bullied characters -- Eric, who's physically menaced for being gay and gentle, and Maeve, who's the "slag" (the show is set in England) of the school. But their arcs have some redemption, as both work to handle their abusers and accept themselves. Sexual content is extremely frank: Viewers see both male and female nudity, including close-ups of genitals. Characters have sex with lots of movement, noise, and realistic talk about orgasms, sexual practices, positions, body fluids, body parts, and on and on. Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples kiss and date; the show has a general openness and acceptance around gender identity issues and many types of sexual orientations, including asexuality. Women, including one in her 50s, have strong/central roles, and their desires and sexuality are represented as much as those of male characters. Language is frequent and often sexual: Expect to hear "f--k," "s--t," and "hell," as well as "c--k," "jizz," "t-ts," "f-g," and "slag." Teens habitually drink, smoke cigarettes, and smoke pot, including a scene in which one character's mom flirtatiously shares a joint with a teen. In another scene, a boy takes multiple Viagra in hopes of having better sex with his girlfriend and suffers a painful erection, which is played for laughs. Bottom line? This show is mature but positive, with realistic problems and relatable characters who often show each other profound kindness in the midst of TV absurdity. Sex Education's second season is more of the same sexual frankness, often with a comic spin (like when a boy is discovered masturbating in a car by his mother and body fluids spurt onto the car's window), but sometimes presented more seriously (a girl who suffers from vaginismus is shown working on her issue over the course of the series and doesn't magically get better just because she falls in love). In the second season, too, though this show is lighthearted, characters and their desires and problems are taken seriously, and they find realistic ways to improve their lot. New characters are also a diverse lot in terms of race, ethnicity, body type, gender and sexual identity, and physical ability (including a character who uses a wheelchair to get around and is considered attractive and romantically viable).
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What's the story?
Otis (Asa Butterfield) has had pretty unconventional SEX EDUCATION. His mom, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist who practices the sexual freedom she preaches to her clients and to her son. So maybe it's no surprise that when savvy school pariah Maeve (Emma Mackey) points out that many of their classmates are struggling with their own sex lives, Otis is ready to dispense some of the wisdom he's heard over the years. But is their business just business? Or is there something else brewing between the two?
Is it any good?
Stocked with great actors and built around a premise with comic legs (if you're OK with an unusually mature sex romp mostly set in a high school), this quirky comedy is a total kick. Its teens are brimming with hormones: making out before school, getting busy afterwards -- even Otis' eager best friend (the disarmingly charming Ncuti Gatwa) gave "two and a half hand jobs" to a boy he met on vacation. The sexual barrage continues at home, where Otis' mom asks him frankly about his masturbation habits, and passes on intimate advice to a classmate who came over to work on a project. Meanwhile, as the show begins, Otis himself is a late bloomer. Or not interested. Or something, even as he passes on his extensive knowledge on the subjects to teens struggling with varied dysfunctions. (In the show's second season, Otis matures sexually, becoming interested in sex and romance, even as he still struggles with interpersonal dynamics.)
It's an interesting contrast to vintage teen sex comedies, which blithely assume that everyone's doing it, or wants to, and the only problem is a lack of sex, not too much of it. Or not the right kind, or with the wrong person, all dilemmas faced by those who come to Otis and Jean for their advice. It's a nice shot of realism in a show that often reads as absurd -- e.g., in the show's first episode, a young man climbs on a cafeteria table and exposes himself to the student body as a stab at "owning his narrative." Despite such hijinks, the show is centered on a central and little-examined truth: Though most (but not all!) people want love and sex, far fewer know exactly how to get it, or what to do with it once they have it. That mooring lends Sex Education an essential sweetness and relatability that will make viewers want to see more -- because they'll see themselves.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the premise of the show. Is it realistic that teens would pay for sex therapy from a nonprofessional? Or from anyone, at all? Why do shows heighten reality? Is it for comic or dramatic effect, or both? Does the premise of this show work for you?
Most of the actors cast on Sex Education as teens are in their 20s. Does that make it harder for them to believably play teens? Does it make their sexual activities easier to watch? Why would older actors be cast instead of teens? Would this show be uncomfortable to watch if the cast was mostly actual teens?
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