I’m never sure if Netflix is recommending things I’ll actually like or simply the latest release. Because of this I end up giving most of the recommendations a shot. Recently, I gave the British comedy drama Sex Education a chance. The show, created by Laurie Nunn and starring Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, and Emma Mackay, follows Otis, an awkward teen and son of a divorced sex therapist, who gives dating advice to his troubled classmates despite himself having no sexual experience.
A great hook, a diverse cast, and a realistic portrayal of the High School experience make this series a delight to watch. That is, however, until episode eight, the season finale, where a storyline involving Otis’ best friend, the openly gay Eric Effoing, takes an oh-too-familiar turn.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
After being assaulted by strangers and having a fallout with Otis that leads to Eric retreating in on himself for a while, he returns to school episode seven in all his fabulous glory, looking more confident in his identity than ever before. This by all accounts is a win. The message to be true yourself despite adversity is one that can never get old. What does get old, is what happens next.
The bully, Adam Groff, who has spent Eric’s entire High School career making his everyday full of fear, including but not limited to intimidation, name-calling, physical violence, and theft, suddenly sees Eric in a new light. The next day the pair find themselves alone and it is then that, after Adam just shot a spitball at Eric and tackled him, that Adam kisses Eric (a moment that is unironically soundtracked by Grizzly Bear singing “he hit me and it felt like a kiss”). Suddenly, everything is supposed to make sense. All this time that Adam has been torturing Eric it has simply been because he has been unable to process his own homosexuality. And so the seeds are planted for a love story to blossom between the two of them, that Eric seems very much interested in pursuing.
Eric’s interest in Adam is exactly where the show lost me. And that is because it is the same detrimental lesson that young people have been told over and over. “If a boy is mean to you, it’s because he likes you.” So now that intimidation, name-calling, physical violence, and theft, is coming from a place of love. And how could you be mad at a boy when, despite his actions, he’s operating from a place of love for you?
Intimidation is bullying. Name-calling is verbal abuse. Physical violence is physical abuse. Theft is a felony. It does not matter why someone is motivated to treat a schoolmate this way, all that matters is that it is wrong. And this cutesy message of love from hate needs to stop. It is damaging.
What would be novel for this TV show would be to show Eric stand up to Adam by saying, “the fact that you are secretly gay does not forgive the terrible things you have done to me over the years. I appreciate that you are struggling with your homosexuality, but I can never be someone who is capable of being so malicious to anyone, especially to someone they supposedly fancy.”
Most television shows take a season to find their legs. I hope, that in the case of Sex Education, the second season distances itself from this archaic and detrimental lesson. Let’s give our characters agency, let’s understand that what we write effects an audience, and let’s use our pens to make a difference.