If you were a teen during the time of director John Hughes and you have ‘80s and ‘90s teen movie lines embedded in the same part of your brain that stores favorite song lyrics, you’re going to love the Netflix original show Sex Education. It tackles the subject of teenage sex openly, honestly and hilariously as it dives into all the confusion and awkwardness about being a hormonal adolescent with “sex on the brain.” It takes place in a picturesque community in the UK but feels very American, both familiar and of the moment.
The show revolves around 16-year old Otis, (Asa Butterfield), who is anxiety-ridden about his own issues with sex and yet who comes into his own when “cool girl” Maeve convinces him to provide sex therapy sessions to their classmates. Because Otis has a unique relationship with his sex-therapist mom (played by the never-better Gillian Anderson), an open book when it comes to her own (casual) sex life. That creates a tension between the two that’s ripe for comedy.
On the surface, Sex Education has all the character “types” we love from our favorite teen movies. There are the two best friends who don’t quite fit in, the pissed-off bully, the cool, outcast girl (who’s secretly the smartest person at school), and even the hard-ass principal. Yet none of these teen characters feel like stereotypes, and anybody who’s made it out of high school can relate to what they’re going through. Sex Education captures the drama of teen life in a way similar to how My So-Called Life once did, yet with some explicit sex scenes that feel completely natural to the show’s frank exploration around the confusion that teenagers have about it. When Otis and Maeve start their plan to run a sex therapy clinic out of an abandoned school bathroom, the show dives into the problems the other students in the school are having in a world where, in the words of Otis’ gay best friend Eric, (and the character you root for the most ) “Everyone is either shagging, thinking about shagging. about to shag, or actually shagging.”
One of the main reasons that the show feels so nostalgic is its deft use of classic songs that bring you back to the time of your favorite American teen movie classics. The soundtrack, filled with songs by bands like The Cure, Devo, INXS, Talking Heads, and The Violent Femmes, (and originals by singer/songwriter Ezra Furman), sets the tone for many hilarious and heartwarming scenes. These songs in particular showcase how successful the music is at creating a mood and taking the audience back to that confusing time of breakouts, bad hair and high school drama.
Episode 1: “Dancing with Myself”- Generation X
You couldn’t choose a better song to set the scene when Otis is feeling confident enough to attempt another go at overcoming the mental block that gets in the way of him successfully “dancing with himself.” The head-bopping beat of the Billy Idol classic kicks in as Maeve gets the idea to start the sex therapy clinic and the song builds as the camera cuts to Otis at home attempting to get over the hump (so to speak). Otis, being the unique character that he is, starts off gazing at the external female organ anatomy chart he worked on with Maeve in class. He is interrupted before getting to the “sweat, sweat, sweat” part of the song and despite Otis’ unusual problem and family life, the scene is relatable and sweet.
Episode 2 –“I Ran “ A Flock of Seagulls
Otis and Eric attend their first big high school party intending to dole out some free advice. Eric offers up an oral sex lesson “banana” to two girls, which shows how endearing his character is in trying to fit in. The scene, just like the show, captures how funny the messiness of teen life is. Even though the classic ‘80s party song sets up a situation he may want to run away from, the scene underscores just how lovable his character is. When the sun comes up, he relishes in the experience of his first party. That is before he throws up in the bushes (another very high school moment).
Episode 3- “The Future’s So Bright I Got to Wear Shades”- Timbuk3
Nothing quite screams classic ‘80s teen movie montage like Timbuk3’s “The Future’s So Bright, I Got to Wear Shades.” It’s only fitting that the song kicks in right after Otis’ fellow students start coming to him with their questions about their sexual hang-ups, and Maeve and Otis decide to have another go at offering sex therapy. The song is also a sign of Otis’ beginning to come out of his shell and find his own voice as a therapist.
Episode 4- “This is The Day”- The The
“This Is The Day” is the ideal song to juxtapose the day that Maeve’s seemingly perfect (almost) boyfriend is having while training for a swim meet, against Otis’ not-so-typical morning of waking up to a nocturnal emission. “This Is The Day” may be remembered by fans of the 1995 teen movie Empire Records for its use in the climactic scene of the film. In Sex Education, Otis has experienced a climax of his own, except that it’s one that signals a beginning on the journey through puberty. The line, “This is the day your life will surely change” has a deeper meaning when taken in the context of Maeve’s decision later in the episode and how it strengthens her bond with Otis.
Episode 5-“Road to Nowhere”- Talking Heads
Each episode of the show introduces new students who come to Otis with a different sex-related issue. One of the things Sex Education succeeds so well at is using a particular song to narrate a scene. When the show does show the act of sex, the songs help these “R-rated” scenes play for laughs. Example: the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” captures the awkward fumbling of a mismatched couple, rolling around in vain. The classic song instantly clues the audience into the incapability of a couple who are clearly better off as friends.
Episode 6- “Love Really Hurts Without You” Billy Ocean
Following the purposefully misguided advice of Otis, Jackson makes his grand gesture to win over Maeve. The scene plays out like a moment from Love, Actually as the school’s swing band joins Jackson in serenading Maeve from the top of a table in the cafeteria. Maeve is no fan of sappy rom-coms but Jackson’s bold performance of Billy Ocean’s upbeat “Love Really Hurts Without You” breaks through her guarded nature and puts him over the top on her boyfriend “pro/con” list. What sets this scene apart from typical rom-com movies is that you can feel equal joy for Maeve and Jackson while also sympathizing with the “friend zone” that Otis finds himself in.
When you’re a sex-obsessed teenager, every day is confusing and awkward, amazing and funny, and your friends are your world. If you’ve ever been a teenager, you need to watch the show Sex Education on Netflix and check out the soundtrack on Spotify. Both will “bring you back” — and make you smile.
Photo from the Netflix series, “Sex Education”