The Creator of Netflix's 'Sex Education' on That Surprising Ending and Season 2
At the end of the first season of Netflix's delightful dramedy Sex Education, the central will-they-won't-they couple does not end up together. Actually, that's not entirely true. Sure, Asa Butterfield's budding sex therapist Otis doesn't hook up with his business partner, Emma Mackey's wise and cynical Maeve. He does, however, finish the season snogging an equally suitable partner: Ola (Patricia Allison). Maybe Otis and Ola are the one true pair of the series! Or maybe it's Maeve and the endearing if misguided swim-team star Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling)?
These and other couplings will surely be potential fodder for Season 2, should Netflix give the show a second season. And there are other questions to answer: What will become of Adam (Connor Swindells), shipped off to military school by his stern headmaster father? How will that impact Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), given their surprising detention dalliance? To address these and other burning questions about Sex Education, Netflix's first 2019 gem, we got on the phone with series creator Laurie Nunn.
Thrillist: How did the idea of a mother-son sex therapist duo come to you?
Laurie Nunn: Well, it was a really interesting sort of process. The production company that I worked with on this show, called Eleven Film, watched a documentary that was on Channel 4 that was called "The Joy of Teen Sex" and it was about these teenagers talking to sex therapist about their teenage sex lives. From there one of the producers came up with the central premise of "what if there was a teenage sex therapist on a school campus?" Then I came in and I've always had a sort of love and adoration for the teen genre and I absolutely love teen movies and teen TV shows. So together we started to develop the world of Sex Education. I went away and created all the characters, sort of let my imagination run wild and it just turned into this big massive ensemble piece, which I don't think anyone was expecting.
The show is very sex positive. How did you think about your attitudes toward sex going into it and what stories you wanted to tell about sex?
Nunn: I think to begin with it always sort of came back to the characters and the story. In terms of where I sit in terms of body positive and sex positivity and feminism and all those things, that sort of just comes through because those are the things that I believe in and it kind of comes through in the writing. We had a writers' room for the first series and there were about 10 people in the room, writers and producers and myself. We just had all these incredible, open conversations about what information we would have like to have seen on TV as teenagers. Through that and through those conversations, we realized it's pretty universal in terms of those really awkward, kind of cringeworthy conversations that you can't really have with your parents or your teachers or your peers, but it is really essential in order for you to have healthy and open relationships with other people. And obviously lots of people telling very cringeworthy stories from their own lives that would then turn into a story of the week.
How did you come to Otis as the character that would be at the center?
Nunn: I think with Otis the thing that makes him interesting as a character is when you first meet him you think: Oh, I've seen this character before. The straight white male, awkward, nerd teenage boy. Is he going to lose his virginity or isn't he going to lose his virginity? But then obviously as it starts to go on you start to realize he has a lot more going on that that. He has his hang ups and his own neuroses. I think for me at one point we did have a conversation about whether we should gender flip the role whether it should be a teenage girl that goes in and has those conversations with her peers. But I always thought it was much more interesting having it from a male perspective. That's what makes him so surprising. He's very empathic and he's got an insight into what's going on with his peers even though he really is struggling so much. I think there's something about seeing a male character, particularly a teenage male character who is using his heart more than his head is interesting. It's not something you see that often. I think it works better that he's a boy actually.
You weave some difficult moments into the show including when Maeve has an abortion and when Eric gets attacked. How were you thinking about balancing those moments?
Nunn: I think that was always very important for me that the show was equally a comedy and a drama. That's very much how I write, and the other TV shows that I love sort of have that happy sad sweet bitter feeling to it. I think for us we just wanted to make sure that we could deal with serious issues like the homophobia and the abortion story with Maeve, but also sure that we were always treading that line but also make sure that it never feels preachy and that it is done not in a light hearted way, but with a light touch. The Maeve storyline is a good example of that where I think even though it is an abortion episode it is about us really getting to know Maeve as a character and getting behind that steely armor she has, chipping away at that for the first time. We do that through exploring this experience that she has, which is not a nice one, but I don't think we should revel in the nastiness of it if that makes sense.
There is an '80s vibe to the show, in the costuming and the music choices. Why did you want to tap into that aesthetic?
Nunn: It was a very conscious decision from myself and the producers and director Ben Taylor who is also an executive producer on the project. We all absolutely love the teen genre, particularly the John Hughes films of the 1980s so we really wanted to make the show have the feeling that it's an homage or that it has this nostalgic backdrop, but that we are talking about very contemporary, modern themes and storylines for the characters. So in a way we were also trying to take this tried and tested tropes of the genre and sort of flip them on their head and show a different perspective on it. I think those two things together and then with the Britishness just make it feel like it's its own thing.
When you say you are taking these tropes and flipping them on their head are you talking about embracing diversity of stories that didn't exist in, say, John Hughes movies?
Nunn: Yeah, I think they were definitely explored in those films. With the teen genre I think so much of it is about the universal element of how awkward and uncomfortable it is to be a teenager and how you don't really know who you are yet and all that sort of stuff. I think the movies of the 1980s or even some of 1990s they hadn't started to think about feminism or intersectionality. With Eric as an example: In some ways he's the gay best friend which we've seen before. I think that we try and tell that story with some extra layers added in to talk about he's got all these different aspects added in and he's trying to fit them together. Now he's trying to figure out what kind of man he wants to be and what kind of gay man he wants to be in 2019. That's what I mean by trying to maybe not push it forward but just sort of delve into it a little bit, which is also the joy of having 8 episodes to do that.
A hallmark of the genre is a will-they-won't-they couple. And you have that with Otis and Maeve. Why did you want to end on the note of Otis finally connecting with Ola and Maeve is with the sweater in the background?
Nunn: I guess with a classic will-they-won't-they they can never really get together. but obviously we will wait and see if we do get a series two then that might happen. You never know. But I think that was important to keep it fresh you have to keep introducing new obstacles. Ola is a great obstacle but she's also a fantastic character in her own right. Hopefully I think if we've done our job right there should be Team Ola and Team Jackson. There should be some people who want Maeve to stay with Jackson and who want Otis to be with Ola forever.
I think I am one of those people. Did you always know you wanted the final moment of the first season to be Otis masturbating?
Nunn: We discovered that in the writers' room for series one. I sort of had a bit of an epiphany one night where we were in the middle of that writing process when we were talking about Otis' journey, his problem, his sexual block. And I was like: Well, that's how we have to end series one. We have to finally overcome that obstacle. I think what I really love about that final shot is there's a sense of euphoria but there's also a little bit of dread. Like what's he going to become? Now that he's crossed over is he going to lose some of that innocence maybe, which I think is interesting from a writing perspective.
You have all these great side characters. If you were to get a season two, would you be interested in fleshing out the world of Moordale further, spending more time with someone like Lily or someone like Aimee?
Nunn: Yeah definitely. I'm just totally in love with all the characters and I just want to spend more time with them. Series one is very much Otis' journey and I think he will again, if we're lucky enough to get a series two we will always come back to Otis. He's a fantastic leading character but the fact that we've got this great ensemble and these amazing young actors who have also just brought so much to those characters. It just feels like they could go anywhere. I love the idea of getting different characters together. If not together in a relationship, just together in the space. Like, I never thought those two characters would have a conversation and there will be loads of opportunity for that.
Speaking of relationships, what were you looking to explore in the pairing of Eric and Adam?
Nunn: I always knew that was what we were working towards. I think if you rewatch the series we very much were telling a love story through bullying with Eric and Adam. Even though in some ways in episode eight it feels like a twist it really is there throughout every episode, the feeling that they have with each other and how kind of confused that is. I think that Adam is just desperate for connection. He's so isolated and alone. He's probably one of the most lonely characters in the in the piece. He's just so desperate for connection. The fact that he bullies people and in particular Eric is his way of looking for intimacy in the world. It will be interesting to see where that takes him now that he's developed a new part of himself after episode eight. It's very sad and it's definitely a cliffhanger in terms what might happen in the future between those two characters.
I know it hasn't been announced, but have you started working on any ideas for a potential season two?
Nunn: We have started working on it, but we will not find out obviously whether we will get another series for another couple of months. It's all up in the air. We definitely started thinking about it. So we have some ideas which is exciting.
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