Everyone who's experienced their teenage years knows all about the horror and humor that comes with being trapped in high school. There are teachers monitoring your every move, popular kids ruling over the social scene, and, of course, the awkward trials and tribulations of learning about sex (and trying to put that knowledge into practice). For some, there were health classes and the pages of Cosmo magazine. For others, there's the new Netflix hit series Sex Education, which offers a funny and relatable look at the sex lives of a group of British teenagers. But, while fans adore the series for its nuanced handling of adolescence, the many American details scattered throughout the show are confusing fans and leaving them wondering where Sex Education takes place.
Sex Education was released last week and tells the story of Otis (Asa Butterfield), an insecure teenage boy who's typical in every way except for his unique coming-of-age circumstances. Otis' mom Jean (brilliantly portrayed by Gillian Anderson, of The X-Files fame) is a sex therapist. Either through genetics or just by overhearing his mother's patients' sessions enough times, Otis has inherited her gift for helping other people sort through their sexual hangups. It's a skill that particularly comes in handy in the halls of high school, where Otis teams up with wild child Maeve (Emma Mackey) to provide their classmates with the open and honest sex education they so desperately need.
Sex Education has amassed a lot of fans in just the one week since it was released. According to Netflix, it's on track to be viewed in over 40 million households by the end of the month, which is more than 10 times the population of Wales, where the series is set. But speaking of the setting of the series, a lot of people are confused about where and when it's supposed to take place.
All the characters have British accents, drive on the left side of the road, and and say things like "shag." Much of the filming took place in the countryside of South Wales, where classics like Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part I were filmed, according to Condé Nast Traveller. And yet, so many other details on the show read as clearly American: The jocks sport letterman jackets and play American football, the hallways are lined with colorful lockers, and nobody wears any stuffy uniforms that are the norm in almost every real-life British school. It turns out, that mixing of American high school tropes with British characters was totally done on purpose. Ben Taylor, director of the series, told Radio Times that it was a deliberate choice to meld the styles of American teen movies with British kids' experiences. He said:
I’ve always been really frustrated that the British school experience is never portrayed with positivity or color or warmth or hope; it always tends to be sticking two fingers up and saying, ‘I’m out of here as soon as I graduate.' Whereas I think there’s an American feeling that, even though the films are riddled with anxieties and angst, you’d still look back at them as the best years of your life. That became the backdrop of what we wanted to set Otis’s story against.
American movies and TV have a long tradition of romanticizing high school, especially in 1980's John Hughes-directed movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Those movies were a huge influence on Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn, who wanted to give the present-day series a timeless feel. She told Radio Times:
I’ve always been really influenced by American film and TV shows; they played a really big part in my own teenage years, so that was always something I wanted to come back to. It’s definitely set in Britain, but we’ve made a very conscious choice to have that American, throw-back nostalgia, John Hughes feel to it.
So while Sex Education is set in a present-day Great Britain, its filled with tropes and style elements from other decades in America. It is a little conusing, but it also works to give the show a universal quality. Since Sex Education contains elements that we associate with coming-of-age stories all around the world, then the show really can be relatable to everyone.