Following the recent release of Sex Education’s third series, Caragh Medlicott asks whether a show famed for its intimate portrayal of teen life loses something in its amalgamation of British and American culture.
As a teenager, I kept a diary rather sporadically. I could never quite get the hang of daily reportage, preferring instead to go on sprawling fifteen-page rambles written from the top bunk at a sleepless 3am. Aside from the occasional terrible poem, the majority of this diary was devoted to all the things wrong with the world, and all the ways I’d seek to correct them. In teendom, the world, as I saw it, primarily consisted of my school, my friends, my crushes – and my thoughts about all three. More than once I entertained the fantasy of upping sticks, hopping across the Atlantic, and starting again at a High School in the U S of A. Partly this was because I thought, in America, I might be the first person in history to make a Brummie accent seem exotic and novel. But more pressingly it was because I’d fallen headfirst for the huge, cliquey, homecoming-crowned, basketball-bouncing, locker-lined halls of the American High School teen dream. In my school we didn’t even have lockers. We had to carry our books from class to class.
Naturally, I wasn’t the first British kid to wish for car parks and varsity jackets where I saw bus stops and itchy school jumpers. The American High School setting has long been a mainstay of Hollywood storytelling. From the wealth of literary-adaptions-turned-teen-movies of the ‘90s and early ‘00s (Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man, John Tucker Must Die, Material Girls… I could go on) to the abundance of long-running TV series like The O.C. and One Tree Hill, the ubiquity of Americanised depictions of adolescence have become something familiar and accessible the world over. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that this very veneer has been used to safety-package one of Netflix’s biggest British exports… Sex Education.
Now in its third series, I’m not the first – or even the hundredth – to comment on Sex Education’s eerie sense of dislocation (Gareth Leaman wrote a wonderful piece on this for Wales Arts Review back when it first debuted). Yet, as Sex Education continues to rake in huge streaming figures, I can’t help but feel a twinge of cynicism towards a show which I find, on the whole, to be entirely delightful. Series three, like the previous two before it, was filmed in Wales – with locations spanning the Wye Valley, Newport, Penarth and Rhondda Cynon Taff. Not that you’d know this from the show. For all the gritty, gross and authentic problems faced by the teenage protagonists, their setting remains an unnamed liminal space, one furnished by a Welsh landscape, zipped by students cycling a la Stranger Things, with accents ranging the length and breadth of the UK.
The lack of school uniform is one of the show’s most obvious diversions from British culture – a point which comes into sharp focus in the most recent series when the newly instated headteacher, Hope, insists on the introduction of uniforms for the whole of the student body. As a plot device, it serves perfectly well – if a little bluntly – in offering further space for exploring the show’s favoured themes of self-expression and burgeoning independence. Yet, for me, it felt like a further strain on my suspended disbelief. One which ultimately began to rankle.
I’ve written before about my doubts surrounding Netflix’s data-based commissioning strategy. In fact, had Sex Education’s creators not established such a universal, Americanised appeal, the show likely wouldn’t have made it into its third series. Gillian Anderson told the Radio Times “the aim and the hope is that Americans won’t notice”. Certainly, I’d rather have the show than not. But I still feel that the King of Streaming Services is bulldozering nuance by insisting on this approach – prizing not real resonance but generalised audience appeasement.
If I were to return to my teenage diary now (or should that be journal?) I’d find that the very things I loathed then, are the exact things I find most evocative and nostalgic now; catching the always-heaving 76 bus into Kings Heath, sneaking the wrong way up the corridor in defiance of the one way system, eating bread barely toasted and swimming with butter from the canteen, hanging from the iron gates at lunch, chatting with my friends.
Ultimately, our school experiences are hyper localised (just see the fire alighted by the “daps” or “pumps” debate in the UK). Being able to authentically capture that experience is part of the reason shows like The Inbetweeners and Derry Girls have seen such success. Granted, Sex Education is doing something different to either of those productions, but I still can’t help but wonder what the show might have looked like had it chosen Wales meaningfully as its setting, rather than just its filming location. On so many fronts, this third series of Sex Education continues its triumphant march of glory. It proves again and again that it’s a show with brains, heart and – er – a few other organs to boot. It’s just a shame its feet are lost somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
You can watch series three of Sex Education on Netflix.