From "Porky's" to "Sex Education": Teen raunch comedies thrive in the worst of times

The new Netflix series gives a dated American genre a much-needed update that's perfect for us now

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 11, 2019 7:00PM (EST)

Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey in "Sex Education" (Jon Hall/Netflix)
Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey in "Sex Education" (Jon Hall/Netflix)

Not all teen sex comedies are created equal. But most, even the ones that don’t age well, accurately speak to and about the times in which they are created.

“Sex Education,” an eight-episode series arriving Friday on Netflix, is a British creation cloaked in a distinctly American form, borrowing its soundtrack and teenage angst from a variety of hit films made in 1980s and 1990s: As Otis Milburn, Asa Butterfield could be any number of thin, sensitive guys with hidden depths, one of those boys that isn’t exactly a stud but isn’t uncool either.

Otis’ classmate and eventual pal Maeve (Emma Mackey) is the designated school “slag,” the one designated early on as damaged goods, a social pariah in a leather jacket who is also not what everyone assumes her to be.

Socially speaking both are better off than Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), a gay kid who doesn’t quite have the money or high fashion sense as the other gay kid in his class, Anwar (Chaneil Kular), who runs with the popular kids. Worse still, Otis is regularly bullied by Adam (Connor Swindells), the headmaster’s son.

Sealing those familiar notions about “Sex Education” is Gillian Anderson, whipping out her very finest British accent as Otis’ mother Jean, a sex therapist whose openness and casual integration of intercourse in her day-to-day existence has produced an emotional distance between herself and her son.

Early on in the series’ first episode, in fact, series creator Laurie Nunn drops a few hints that made me wonder whether Anderson’s character was destined to be this series' ode to Stifler’s mom from “American Pie.”

Despite this, and an immodestly raunchy opening scene featuring Adam and his ditzy girlfriend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), going at it so fervently the ceiling shakes, “Sex Education” ends up being more than a simple mash-up of greatest hits from the Rated R section of teenage movies from the Reagan era. Under Nunn and directors Ben Taylor and Kate Herron (each of whom helm four episodes), this is a series that modernizes the genre to embrace every kind of kid —the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads, all of 'em! and without pandering to any singular point of view in doing so.

On some level this makes it a very Netflix sort of show, created to appease the nostalgic crowd that pines for the next season of “Stranger Things” or snorts at the filthy, raging hormonal humor of “Big Mouth” and the gone-but-not-forgotten "American Vandal."  The world of adolescence plays well among the streaming service’s viewership, particularly adolescence long gone, evidenced in "Sex Education"'s faithful devotion to an '80s-driven soundtrack  even though the series is set in the present day.

Subtly, however, Nunn and her predominantly-female writing staff capture all the carnal tension and overt curiosity of the adolescent world in a way without exploiting or objectifying one gender over another. This is an important distinction, and pairs nicely with the streaming service’s successful resurrection of the romantic comedy, a film category beloved by women.

It may be British through and through, but “Sex Education” looks, sounds (minus the accents and slang) and feels like an American coming-of-age story. And drops at a time when America is regressing into an era of sexual repression, politically speaking. However, hasn’t that been true since 1980s?

The same decade that bestowed upon us such sexually-charged classics as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Risky Business” also coincided with the passage the Adolescent Family Life Act, casually known as the “chastity law.” It was meant to fund educational programs to designed to “promote self-discipline and other prudent approaches” to teen sex.

There’s a case to be made that this law and others, and the strain of conservatism that birthed them — coinciding with the founding of such organizations as the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Institute and the Family Research Council— exist for the same reason that sex comedies like “Hot Dog…The Movie” were box-office hits. The sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s helped mainstream the adult film industry which, in turn, impacted all of cinema.

It’s fascinating to view such entertainment against the backdrop of politics, especially in terms of narrative and visual treatments of flesh and intercourse. In the ‘80s, sex capers like “Porky’s” were top-heavy with jokes at the expense of the female body, and included copious amounts of boob shots. “Revenge of the Nerds” famously hinged its end-of-movie twist on the sexual assault of one of its female lead characters, played as a gag resolved in the underdog rapist's favor: He disguises himself knowing that she'll mistake him for her boyfriend, but when she discovers the truth . . .  why, he's so skilled she simply doesn't mind that she's just been boned by a guy she detests.  (How very Georgetown Prep!)

A heteronormative, insistently male viewpoint dominates in these films, while the rom-coms to which Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Love Before” and its newest release “Dumplin’” pay homage are designed with the female gaze in mind. I'm referring to the sweet, chaste romances patterned after John Hughes' '80s catalog or '90s fare such as “Clueless” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Those two films are the product of a decade during which a more aggressive conservatism blossomed in reaction to Bill Clinton’s presidency. In the late ‘90s, Congress and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr even produced taxpayer funded erotica in the form of 1998’s publication of “The Starr Report.”

A year later, Jason Biggs’ career would become a household name by playing a kid who tries to pleasure himself with a baked dessert. “American Pie” became the leavening from which a new generation of teen sex comedies would arise for a short time in the early Aughts.

This week an adult film star, Stormy Daniels, did American viewers a public service by counter-programming against the president’s Oval Office speech by appearing in a webcast to fold laundry in her underwear. Daniels claims to have slept with Donald Trump, a married man and our current president.  Every teenager knows that, and only a few of their parents have the energy to clutch their pearls over it.

Meanwhile, Trump’s administration continues to fund “abstinence-only” education efforts while cutting federal funding to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program created under former president Barack Obama in 2018. (A federal court ruling restored the funding.) Who needs science-based sex ed, anyway? These days, don't kids find out about the birds and the bees from Pornhub?

“Sex Education,” as a counterpoint to legislative madness, manages to be heartfelt, funny, provocative and even better, responsible in its view of teen relationships and coupling. Granted Nunn, who writes the first episode, throws some female full-frontal in our faces immediately to let the viewer know that, yeah, it’s that kind of show. Quickly, though, she proves it to be something else. The core of the story isn’t about the sex but the muck of everything surrounding it, lessons abandoned by all curricula: Otis, the hero, and Maeve, the social pariah, team up when Maeve realizes there's money to be made off of Otis' natural talent for listening and delivering judgment-free advice to kids who desperately need it.

Otis is effortlessly charming, thanks to Butterfield's performance, but his mother's clinical approach to sex, the product of unresolved feelings on the family front, saddles Otis with a raft of issues, especially as his body and those of his peers rapidly change. As much as he understands sex, and the psychology behind body image and comfort with one's own sensuality, he's unable to take his own medicine. (A trait he shares with Jean.)

Without Maeve, an independent young woman who enjoys sex on her own terms, Otis would not connect what he has to offer with a student population steeped in ignorance. In this way, the narrative development surrounding this unwieldy trio makes “Sex Education” a work that's beyond female-targeted or feminist: It's all-inclusive. None of the characters are easily pegged, even if all of them play roles we’ve seen before.

“Sex Education” ably serves the adult audience via Anderson’s performance, as Jean travels a parallel emotional road in a subplot that could easily have been the focus of its own show, albeit one considerably more solemn and even melancholy. This is a side dish, though; the story is not about the adults but the kids failed by the decisions adults make in the name of protecting them.

Human nature and sexual urges always find a way to circumvent rules and politics, though. Here, at last, is a series that doesn’t play that notion as a matter of tragedy or titillation, but a starting point for exploration, both physical and emotional. That’s a satisfying mark of evolution in this narrative space. And as any human with a pulse and a libido knows, satisfaction is what fuels the chase, ensuring these romps will keep coming back around time and again.

Hopefully, like the act itself, they'll keep improving in quality each time. At least now the genre as a fine lesson plan to draw upon.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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