OTIS ISN’T THE REAL STAR OF “SEX EDUCATION”
Otis kind of sucks.
There is something very enjoyable and fun about “Sex Education” and perhaps fitting, the word to describe the viewing experience is satisfying. The show is filled with so much nostalgia and amusing moments that remind even the most jaded adult about a time when popularity and having friends was the biggest issue to mind. Through Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) we’re able to peek into the world of teenage-hood where discussions about feminism, sexual health, female pleasure, and even sexual trauma are plentiful. Colourful characters really help to enliven the show and in fact they might actually be the overlooked anchors.
The Netflix series is about Otis and his inventive ways of getting close to his crush Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) while also shedding the reputation he’d gained as the weird boy with an unusually close relationship with his mother. His mother, Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) is a sex and relationship therapist, and they have quite an intimate relationship — sometimes too intimate — where in, she regularly discusses sexual health theories and practises. So, it was almost logical that with the resources available at hand (books in his mother’s office) and with coaching from Maeve, Otis would start a pseudo-therapy business of his own giving love and sex advice to students at his high school. An amateur, Otis often gives the wrong advice but interestingly, he is introspective enough to realize when he is causing harm to his customers and adjusts accordingly. But when it comes to his personal relationships, he can’t ever seem to see past his self-victimization complex. It makes watching him frustrating at times.
Still, the feeling of warmth from “Sex Education” appeals to a universal experience of growing up and learning for the first time how to look normal and also survive within sub-cultures while carving out a unique identity. In Laurie Nunn’s writing, which borrows some themes and scenes from the works of John Hughes and other American 80s teen movies, eccentric background characters shine. Although Otis is packaged as palatable, he’s often abrasive, up-tight and self-righteous which is nauseating. Yet, “Sex Education” is proof that if you have amazing supporting characters and give space for proper development, then it’s ok if the main character is annoying. So, despite the problem of Otis, we have personalities like his best-friend Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) and a theatre enthusiast, Lily Iglehart (Tanya Reynolds) to fill the gap.
There’s isn’t nearly enough attention given to these purely entertaining side characters that have blessed viewers with their existence. Although Maeve is remarkable because of her very firm feminist and iconoclast identity, they are also equally cherishable. Lily is one character that I’ve found so touching. She is very tough and unapologetic about who she is, since over the years she’s received pressure from insecure peers, who wanted her to conform to the status-quo and who used stares and snubs as a tactic to police her behaviour. Still, she’s steadfast in speaking up her mind and doing what she wants. For instance, when Otis’ girlfriend, Ola (Patricia Allison), becomes Lily’s friend, she attempts to educate Ola on speaking to Otis about her sexual preferences, so that he can improve. Her maturity in “Sex Education” is actually quite ground-breaking and even inspiring given that many women report having un-pleasurable sexual experiences with men while the men are often unaware.
Just as important, characters like Eric and popular girl, Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood), are a reminder that we are all learning and trying to figure things out as we go. Eric is pitiful but also impressive. He has the sweetest heart which makes it so painful to watch as he is bullied by a self-hating Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) who can’t stand his flamboyance. Eric’s development from a character who minimized himself to avoid the torments of Adam, to a beautiful and confident boy, is heartwarming. Similarly, Aimee grows self-assured in her ability to speak up when something isn’t right which we saw when she defended Maeve. But the quality that makes her special is her skill in remaining poised and unfazed when she misspeaks and is corrected by others. They are both pure and innocent. In the end, even Ola, with her forgiving and embracing nature, is more agreeable than Otis.
Sweet characters are plentiful in “Sex Eucation” but so are the disastrous ones that invite chaos and discomfort. For instance, Adam is disgusting in his selfish need to harm others so that he can feel better about himself. Equally disturbing, his father and school principal, Mr Groff (Alistair Petrie), is detestable. Just the same, Sofia Marchetti (Hannah Waddingham), the mother of the popular athlete, Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling) is seriously troubling. “Sex Education” seems to disregard the real trauma she caused to Jackson by impressing her dreams on him and using their tense relationship with swimming as a way to connect with him. At her hands, Jackson was depressed, self-harming, and had low self-esteem because he learned from his mother that his value was tied to his success. However, this very serious sign of mistreatment was overlooked and remedied with a sloppy reconciliation where she barely recognized her harm, but was forgiven immediately. It was baffling to watch. Even though these questionable characters are given nuance and shown with relatable sides, they are still angering. So, perhaps the argument here is that instead of bothering with the likes of dispensable characters like Adam, Mr Groff or Mrs Marchetti, maybe we could focus more on the paths of characters like Eric and especially Lily. Can we, please?
But of course, these personalities are needed to create conflict, as is required in any good story so, we might have to endure. Since the central idea of the show is giving grace to people so that they can grow, it’s quite obvious then, that these characters will become more personable as the series continues. I mean, if Otis can finally take ownership of his arrogance in season two, then I suppose we’ll just have to wait to actually see meaningful growth for these other unpleasant characters. Maybe this will finally mean that Otis will start taking his hygiene seriously and take longer than a few minutes to get ready for school. Also maybe just maybe, Jackson will be portrayed as a regular dark-skinned black boy without having to wear hazel contact lenses to make him more amenable to white audiences, unless of course this season was just a tease.