I always grew up with the idea that puberty was the most awkward thing you could talk about with your friends, teachers and family. After lessons in school and the dreaded “talk” with parents, I still felt there were things that were just too taboo to discuss. This might just be me talking, but I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one to feel a sense of embarrassment lift off of my shoulders when watching Big Mouth and Sex Education (Sex Ed) on Netflix.
To the uninitiated, each show is a Netflix original that centres itself around the idea of puberty and sex in the world of Secondary School and Sixth Form (Middle and High School to our Trans-Atlantic cousins). But with a long line of films such as 10 Things I Hate About You, Superbad and Easy A, to name but a few, one can easily ask, “What makes these Netflix originals so different? Haven’t they just recycled similar plots?” Anyone who has watched either show will know this is not the case. While, yes, these films are all comedies engaging with coming of age story tropes, Big Mouth and Sex Ed use comedy in a different fashion. They parallel the ridiculous with reality. With Nick Kroll’s animation taking a more imaginative take on the ‘ridiculous’, with the show’s seemingly unlimited freedom thanks to animation, Laurie Nunn’s comedy-drama plays perfect homage to the films of John Hughes, The Breakfast Club for example, to engage audiences both young and old on what it now means to go through adolescence.
It is in this paralleling of comedy and crushing reality that important conversation is born. By looking closely at a single episode from each show, ‘The Planned Parenthood Show’ from Big Mouth and ‘Episode 3’ from Sex Ed, we’ll be able to observe how and why this combination of real stories and creative madness makes me, and possibly others, wish I had these shows growing up.
I must present a SPOILER WARNING! If you have not seen these shows, I urge you to take a weekend and dedicate it to binging them in quick succession.
Still here? Well then, let’s get into it.
It’s no accident that the two episodes I chose to discuss are, arguably, the heaviest hitting. As previously written however, we have a balance of ridiculous and real. Meaning, if the episode is more serious, then there must be an equal amount of hilarity, and vice versa. We see examples of this in each show: Nick’s class talking about Planned Parenthood parallels the facts of what the organisation does alongside a skits titled “The Vagilantes” and “Blue Waffle”. With the former showing the significance of cancer screenings for women and the other depicting the dangers of not having STD checks and relying on the internet instead, we have a classic case of art imitating life in the most perfect way. Something similar can be said for Sex Ed. With the prominent narrative of the episode revolving around Maeve’s abortion, we see a depiction of what is like to undergo such a difficult process. It’s then balanced out by Otis’ loving, yet awkward, sense of self. By giving the anti-abortion couple some free therapy, waiting for Maeve to then walk her home with flowers, we’re hit with the line, “Nothing says happy abortion more than a bouquet” prompting some form of laughter. Throughout the series, we also see the bind between Otis and his best friend Eric. As the enthusiastic gay friend, he never falters to balance Otis’ feelings of Sexual repression with unexpected comedy, with him asking whether his sex dream with Maeve ended with “ALS challenge or dick sneeze?”
We then move on from these shows, enlightened. Not only for the sake of our characters learning and/or bonding, but enlightened because we have also learned something. I feel that sex is taught at schools in a serious manner, which isn’t necessarily wrong, leading to serious outlooks on sexual relations without looking at how fun it can be. Both shows take the paralleled approach, which some have found to be more educational! Asa Butterfield, Otis in Sex Ed, has said in an interview that,
“I’ve read a few things from people who’ve genuinely learnt more from watching this show than they did from any sex education they had at school … like vaginismus for example, which I didn’t know existed – so there’s that kind of education, but also the education in the normality of sex, and how weird it is as a teenager, and how no one’s normal.”
The key word here is “normal”. We are told what is normal in sex education per the school curriculum, to the point where what isn’t normal is dangerous, translating into ‘If I’m not normal, then no one will want to have sex with me.’ Both shows depict not only that none of us are normal, with individual issues that can be easily mended with just a bit of talking, but that being different isn’t a flaw. Every character, much like The Breakfast Club, is given a narrative for us to follow and sympathise/empathise with. Combine this with the comedy-reality balance and we have recipe for importance.
Don’t just take my word for it! Reviews have also praised the shows approach, with Arielle Bernstein’s piece capturing it better than I ever could, “Sex Education is a defiantly hopeful show, one that insists that the young people who are struggling to navigate their hormones and an often unjust world are fully capable of true emotional growth.”
I would hope those going through the pains of Secondary School and Sixth Form are watching these shows as they will not only make you think, but are guaranteed to have you cringing, laughing, crying and just feeling every emotion. For those who are a bit older, I’d still recommend a watch. Who knows, you might learn something.
Words by Jacob Fleming