Laurie Nunn, the creator of the Netflix hit "Sex Education", thinks that parents and kids deserve better conversations about sex.
What is it like going through puberty — with all of the excitement, confusion, frustration, hormones and high school politics — when your mother is a sex therapist?
“Sex Education," which is among Netflix’s most popular series in the world, ponders that question. The show, now in its 3rd season and picked up for a 4th one, follows Otis Milburn (played by Asa Butterfield), a dorky teenager at a Welsh high school, as he opens a secret clinic where he and his crush Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) advise their classmates on how to perform in the bedroom and avoid being a total jerk when it comes to heart affairs. Otis and his friends are exploring their sexualities and trying to figure out where they fit in, all while tussling with their parents, friends and teachers. Along the way, the teenagers fall for one another; break up and make up; show up for one another when their parents don’t; stand up to teachers and overthink everything.
Laurie Nunn, the show’s creator, speaks about how she built this fictional world that is simultaneously hilarious, touching and informative. Her answers to the questions have been edited for clarity and length.
Dan Savage, who’s been writing his sex advice column for 30 years says so much has changed over time — the Internet barely existed when he started writing, and same-sex partners weren’t allowed to marry. When asked what still needed to change, he says: We still need comprehensive sex education, and that’s more controversial than gay marriage. Do you think shows like yours play a role in educating today’s young people?
Obviously the show is called “Sex Education.” I love the idea of putting this teenage sex therapist (Otis) onto a campus and exploring this really dysfunctional relationship he has with his mom (Jean Milburn, played by Gillian Anderson). The more I developed the show, it became apparent that it really is a great opportunity to have quite open conversations about things that are really important, like body positivity and consent and female pleasure and desire. These are all things that I was definitely not taught about at school. First and foremost, the show is supposed to be entertaining; it’s supposed to be fun. But I do want it to be an antidote to some of the really, really bad information that I was given when I was at school.
Have you heard adult viewers saying that the show feels corrective to what they learned when they were young?
Yeah, I get really lovely feedback from people. One of the nicest things that I hear is that it is connecting with the different generations. Sometimes you may even have parents who are watching the show and their teenagers will watch the show. They probably won’t watch it together. I think that’s a little bit too awkward. But it is starting that intergenerational conversation, and that feels very hopeful.
One thing that people love about the show is that the adult characters are clearly also still figuring things out. Why was it important to you to portray adults that don’t know what they’re doing?
I think the main adult characters are equally important to the teenage characters. I didn’t want to make a show about teenagers where the parents were only there to be obstacles or the antagonists. I wanted the parents to feel very human. I sort of see the show as more about being a teenager rather than a teen show. Being a teenager is such a universal experience — either you are one or you were one. I’m in my 30s now, and I still feel like I’m 16 years old; I really haven’t changed that much since that time. That’s at the core of the show: Everyone is still working it out. Everyone is messy and complicated — and you nver really know what’s truly going on for someone.
I love Gillian Anderson’s role. Did you envision her in the role or was it just luck that you got her?
It was complete luck. This was the first show that had ever been greenlit for me. So the idea that Gillian Anderson would be in it was a complete thrill and a dream. What’s been wonderful about watching Gillian is just getting to see her be so funny. Maybe she hadn’t been given so many opportunities to do that before, and it’s just wonderful to see her make people laugh.
You mentioned Otis and Jean having a dysfunctional relationship, but they usually come back and repair things. Otis changes a lot over the course of the series. Where does Otis’s wisdom come from?
He’s definitely a bit of an old soul. I was very drawn to writing about the intensity of a single-parent relationship. There’s also something about the fact that Otis is an only child. Jean has never treated him like a child; I think she’s always treated him like a little adult. And so some of his wisdom is innate, and then some of it is also learned. But that’s also why it’s so great when we get to see him actually behave like a bit of a spoiled brat, because he is only 17 and he’s not going to get it right all the time.
TV shows and movies are often criticized for tokenizing their supporting characters. But in “Sex Education,” especially in the 3rd season, the side characters really come alive. Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) and Eric Effiong’s (Ncuti Gatwa) relationship is as complicated and nuanced as Otis and Maeve’s. It’s so rare to see a nonbinary character (Cal, played by Dua Saleh). How do you ensure that these characters feel multidimensional?
I was really interested in those stock standard characters or tropes that we know and love in rom-coms and TV and film. In many ways when you first meet them, you’re sort of like: Otis is the geeky virgin, and Eric is his gay best friend. But I wanted to take those tropes and flip them on their head or really dig into them a little bit deeper and show them from a different perspective. A joy of being able to write for TV is that, if you’re lucky enough to have multiple seasons, you get the time to flesh out these characters’ story lines. In Season 3, I loved really getting to know Mr. Groff (Alistair Petrie), Adam’s dad, more. We’re able to explore the cycles of toxic masculinity by seeing that Mr. Groff has also had a lot of pain and trauma in his own life, and now he’s just passing that onto his son. Then the question becomes: Is Adam going to break that cycle?
What were you watching when you were a teenager?
School was quite a painful time for me, so I would escape by watching films and TV shows. “Blossom” was huge for me. “Clarissa Explains It All” was a big one. “Dawson’s Creek,” “The O.C.,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “My So-Called Life.” I loved “10 Things I Hate About You”; I know every line in that film by heart. “She’s All That” and “Never Been Kissed.” We have quite a lot of fun in “Sex Education” sort of riffing on some of those films — like “Mean Girls."
Is there a “Sex Education” character that you identify with as being closest to your teen experience?
I’m definitely the most similar to Otis. I grew up with a single mom. I think he’s often feeling like he’s in between worlds, and he’s really trying to work out what it means to be a good person and what kind of adult he wants to be. He’s a real chronic overthinker, and he’s got a bit of anxiety. I feel quite connected to Otis, and because of that, he’s also sometimes the character that I find the hardest to write.
In the 7th episode of the 3rd season, Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood) tells her best friend Maeve “let’s be each other’s moms”. The show has all these really touching moments regarding friendship, parenthood and relationships. How do you see these different types of bonds fitting into the show?
The platonic relationships are very important in the show. I think that we should have more messaging in the world that says that great friendships and chosen family are equally important to romance or finding the great love of your life.
Watch Sex Education on VideoPio now: Sex Education - Full Episodes