Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Among people who know me well, my affection for Netflix’s teen dramedy “Sex Education” has always been a bit of a surprise. I am afflicted with something my friends and I call “cringe disease,” which prevents me from enjoying humor derived from embarrassment, awkwardness, or indiscretion. Despite my own far-from-perfect record at avoiding socially uncomfortable situations, I find it nearly unbearable to watch someone else fail to read the room.
So, for me, a series focused entirely on the humiliations of public pubescence makes for unlikely comfort food. But while, sure, I suffered through large parts of Season 4 — in particular an accidental R-rated display at a school-wide assembly and a painfully unrealistic delivery of the definition of “enthusiastic consent” by a 17-year-old — the discomfort always felt beside the point. While I’ve grown to love the show’s bumbling characters (if not its heavy-handed presentation of sexual health information), the part of “Sex Education” that has always held me rapt is its setting in the fictional rural utopia of Moordale. And its pastoral glory has never been on grander display than in the show’s fourth and final season, which released for streaming on September 21.
The show follows a cast of teens diverse in race, class, and gender presentation through secondary school in what viewers are (mostly) left to assume is the British countryside. The conceit of season one is that an awkward teen named Otis who was raised by a sex-therapist mother has, by osmosis, absorbed the tricks of her trade. When he enters secondary school, he and the precocious bad-girl character, Maeve, devise a scheme to disperse his desperately-needed wisdom at a profit. From those beginnings, relationships both friendly and romantic tumble forward through the seasons, layering on top of one another in the typical manner of a high school friend group. Season four finds the show’s ensemble cast beginning their last year at a new school where the popular kids are queer, gossip is forbidden, and there are no class rankings.
While all of these actors have British accents, their high school is clearly modeled after American teen shows. When the series premiered in 2019, I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out what part of the United Kingdom it was meant to represent, and quickly learned that it’s filmed mostly in Wales’s remote Wye Valley. But rather than taking inspiration from any one region or city, the show is supposed to be an amalgamation of countries, cultures, and time periods.
This is reflected not only in its mixture of English and American educational settings, but also its combination of nostalgic aesthetics and progressive politics. The teens are straightforwardly modern: they publish sexy sci-fi writing on online blogs, watch weekly episodes of “The Third Wives of Miami,” and identify as polyamorous. But they also wear letterman jackets and bell bottoms, bike, walk, and bus to school, and generally exude a level of independence that feels anachronistic to Gen Z. Whether or not there was ever a time when small towns like Moordale were truly traversable by car-less teenagers, their lack of social atomization hearkens back to a time prior to cell phones, when kids were required to go out and find each other in person.
To me, the most compelling unlikely juxtaposition in the show is that of dreamy rural landscapes with urban modes of transportation. The bulk of best-friend-duo Eric and Otis’s relational drama takes place on their bike ride to school, though the camera conveniently skips the peaks and valleys of some truly treacherous hills. In a powerful plotline that reverberates through multiple seasons, the lovable sidekick Aimee gets sexually assaulted on a city bus on her way to school, so she starts walking instead. And when, in Season 4, Ruby learns that the popular kids at her new school are do-gooders, she immediately ditches her car for a bike to seem more environmentally conscious. All of this seems to me highly unlikely in any American town that looks like Moordale.
But that’s what I love about the show. Even if it required producers to stitch together far flung locales shot-by-shot, “Sex Education” presents a dreamy — if a bit unrealistic — vision of small-town life, where teens are active and independent, public transit is a powerful connector, and the culture is diverse and dynamic. Its particular combination of unfiltered teen awkwardness and aspirational rural living reminds us that, while the messiness of living together is intractable, the settings in which we live can be molded to our liking.
All four seasons of Sex Education are streaming on Netflix.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.