It’s not often that a UK drama hits big in America, still less one about the travails of school life, given how distinct the education systems are, not to mention drinking habits of the two nations’ youth. Yet Sex Education has proved to be an exception. The Netflix show’s second season has been a smash on both sides of the Atlantic. But why?
Perhaps it is in part because with Sex Education Netflix has given us a show that’s both British and American. This is transatlantic youth culture at its most florid. Our protagonists look like the cast of The Breakfast Club – they wear letterman jackets, play American football and go to an American-style high school prom. But they also have British accents, speak in British English, and are social and scripted in very British ways. All these things coexist at once – the British and the American forms keep passing in the hallway, conspicuously ignoring one another when they do.
This is something we’ve seen on the rise on Netflix in recent years – from Jonathan Entwistle’s The End of the F***ing World to Black Mirror. But what is the creative strategy behind all this hybridity?
Well, of course it’s fair to ask whether there is a creative strategy at all. In the case of Sex Education in particular, some have speculated that this is Netflix’s simple, cynical bid to expand the show’s audience – flogging an Americanised version of British teenage culture to appeal to two markets at once. Why not just mix cultures without care or explanation and hope for big numbers?
I think it’s clear the showrunners (the writer Laurie Nunn and the series director Ben Taylor) are up to something more interesting. I don’t think they are simply rising in a bid for common ground between the cultures.
We have seen a systematic rethinking of the contracts that have long bound audiences and show makers. One such contract used to be “keep it simple, stupid” – the idea that audiences do not like overcomplicated characters, dialogue or plot. Another was that actors must be beautiful – if they can act as well, that’s welcome but not a prerequisite. These were rules fashioned by Aaron Spelling and exhaustively explored by American TV until sometime in the 1980s.
Then, all of a sudden, complexity was OK. The first condition of acting became talent. Add to this the rise of streaming TV, which improved the range of programme choices and gave longer, richer narrative arcs and, gradually, TV began to give up its status as the idiot cousin of theatre and cinema, and hold its own. Our clearest evidence: good actors now want in. Shows such as The Wire are no longer lonely exceptions but increasingly the rule – as evidenced by Homeland, Luther, Atlanta, Fleabag, Orphan Black, Killing Eve – all headed up by incredibly talented actors.
But I don’t think Sex Education is necessarily an exploration of a new, more subtle type of storytelling. It’s clear the makers are up to something else still. And this brings us back to the Britishness and Americanness at work in the show. I wonder if, instead of a simple attempt to tick all the boxes for a transatlantic audience, we are looking at a deliberate collision of cultural materials; an artistic choice to draw British and American cultures together for their contradictions and inconsistencies.
This cultural strategy is everywhere at work in pop music. Lil Nas X’s country-rap song Old Town Road is a work of such syncretic cunning that when Billboard removed it from the country chart and Lil Nas X was asked why, he plausibly suggested his “song’s ingenuity [may have] intimidated them”. Billie Eilish is vividly genre-splicing. And most recently 100 Gecs, a musical duo from St Louis has taken the mixing and matching of genre to new heights. Sex Education is an example of TV catching up to the creativity that’s been active in music for several decades and fiction for much longer.
Genre is dead. This murder is yet to be detected by those who make Law and Order television. The sophisticated showrunner is now sitting at a lab bench that puts a large set of combinatorial devices and strategies at her disposal. And for some, creativity comes from a particle accelerator in which diverse cultural materials that don’t “go together” are made to. This accounts for vertiginous moments in Sex Education. “Wait, English kids in an American high school? What difference will their Englishness make?” And for the American viewers, there’s perhaps the odd sensation that their own youth has been infiltrated. For both viewers, the story of adolescence has been rendered less predictable and given new life.
TV is getting better because culture in general is getting better. Witless compliance by the viewer and the storyteller is in remission. We now expect a show to depart from conventions as surely as it conforms to them. Sex Education is a worthy contribution to the experiment.
• Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist and author