Squeals and laughter ring out across the set of Sex Education. It’s Gillian Anderson’s last day of filming for Season 2, and Ncuti Gatwa–who plays the show’s ebullient teen Eric Effiong–has just discovered Anderson has hired an ice cream truck as a parting gift. A blackboard next to the treats, decorated with chalk drawings of genitalia, reads: To the cast + crew from Gillian on her last filming day. Thank you a million zillion penises and yonis!!!!
It’s exactly what you might expect on the set of Sex Education, the heartfelt British teen sex comedy that earned acclaim last year for its mix of raunchy humor and vulnerability. In the first month after its debut, Netflix said 40 million accounts were on track to stream the first season, which introduced viewers to awkward 16-year-old Otis (Asa Butterfield) as he begins charging his fellow students for sex and relationship advice, thanks to the encyclopedic knowledge he has gleaned from his mother, free-spirited sex therapist Jean (Anderson).
Like its premise, Sex Education is a study in contradictions. Its aesthetic is timeless, but its issues couldn’t be more timely: abortion, anti-LGBTQ violence and revenge porn were all plot points in its first season. The show subverts the archetypes–jocks, bullies and mean girls–we’ve come to expect from high school stories, making those characters feel deeply human. It exists in a geographical and chronological limbo where smartphones and present-day pop-culture references exist alongside nostalgic ’60s clothing and ’80s music. And it’s a bold, earnest show about a subject that makes some people squeamish. “Brits are notoriously much more prudish than Americans are,” says Anderson. “It’s cathartic and freeing to get to be as bold and shameless as possible.”
For decades, hit movies from American Pie to Superbad have centered on horny heterosexual teenage boys with hopes of losing their virginity. Sex Education may have resonated so widely because, instead, it gives compelling story lines to a broad supporting cast and delves deeply into how teenagers connect with their families. “The different age groups makes it more interesting,” says creator and screenwriter Laurie Nunn. “I think if it was just teens, I’d get a bit claustrophobic.”
The show’s second season tackles subjects including self-harm, STI stigma and the trauma of sexual assault. But it’s really about how people, regardless of their age or sexuality, relate to one another and to themselves. At the heart of the show is the friendship between Otis and Eric, a gay black teen who is “more fabulous than ever” in Season 2, Gatwa says. Nunn explains she was eager to show a male friendship where “they talk in a really open way, as an antidote to a lot of the narratives about more performative masculinity that we’re seeing in the world.” In Season 2, a friendship between sporty Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and superintelligent Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) also comes into focus. “It’s beautiful to show that relationship and growth between two dark-skinned black people,” says Williams-Stirling. “You don’t see that a lot.” Many of the dilemmas that come up in the show emerged from frank conversations in the writers’ room. “The themes are pretty universal,” says Nunn. “Having healthy sex and relationships goes beyond being a teenager.”
Indeed, the show has thoughtful lessons for audiences of all ages about the search for belonging, both inside and outside the bedroom. As Jean reminds one client: “Sex doesn’t make us whole, so how could you ever be broken?”
This appears in the January 27, 2020 issue of TIME.
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