Last week, as I was aimlessly scrolling through Netflix, lazily allowing my eyes to pass over Oscar-nominated box office smash here, internationally-acclaimed crime drama there, I came across an original show called Sex Education.
This struck me as a rather odd title to begin with – I wondered whether the show’s premise could be some Marie Kondo-esque expert teaching couples how to ‘spark joy’ in the bedroom. But instead I came across a socially awkward teenage boy who decides to follow in the footsteps of his sex therapist mother to set up an informal ‘sex clinic’ at his school.
I was instantly hooked.
The show depicts a clever amalgamation of British and American cultural tropes playing out in a UK sixth form as the cast deals with all the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in 2019. This ingenious production technique has been gradually creeping into Netflix’s output, with other British-produced shows including Safe and The End of the F***ing World adopting a British-American aesthetic for audiences.
But why is Netflix doing this?
Great British Programming – UK Stars on the World Stage
In the past few years, British TV, film and talent have been making waves across the world. UK actors feature heavily in the 2019 Oscars nominations and some of the biggest shows of this decade are British (What are my personal favourites, I hear you ask? Hands-down: Black Mirror and Killing Eve).
Now we have Sex Education: the latest British show which seems to be generating serious buzz across the globe.
The show was produced in the UK and portrays a British cast including Asa Butterfield as 16-year-old Otis, Ncuti Gatwa as his best friend Eric and Gillian Anderson as his mother. On top of that, the show was filmed in the quintessentially British Wye valley of south Wales.
Sex Education is British… but also Global
With these credentials, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Sex Education is a firmly British TV show. But while the focus is placed on a British sixth form – with an invariably displeased headmaster who resembles a male version of Miss Trunchbull – Moordale Secondary School also has some quite clearly American features.
From the brash school logo and varsity jackets to the Mean Girls-esque popular group nicknamed ‘The Untouchables’, many features of the show are reminiscent of US teen movies. We don’t have to speculate on whether or not these signifiers of American teen life were intentional: Anderson – who plays the protagonist’s mother – has confirmed the writers wanted to have “a bit of both worlds” – UK and US – in the series.
By combining an Anglo-American aesthetic with relatable themes of growing up, sex, and relationships, the show aims to transcend cultural boundaries and connect with audiences around the world. And in that it seems to have succeeded. Sex Education has been catapulted to extraordinary heights in a short space of time: Within a month of its release, Netflix reports that an estimated 40 million subscribers tuned in to watch the show.
Should media with global appeal be celebrated or lambasted?
This culture-bridging TV isn’t just a British phenomenon: the streaming platform has also employed this cultural-merging technique for some of its shows produced in other countries. The Spanish series ‘Elite’, for instance, has been dubbed ‘Riverdale, Gossip Girl and Big Little Lies rolled up into a murderous teen drama’.
But at what cost does this international mish-mash of content come?
In a lecture last year, the BBC Director of Content Charlotte Moore took aim at Netflix and other streaming services for their US-centric, one-size-fits-all approach to content. Instead of nurturing ‘home-grown’ talent and empowering British storytellers, she argued that SVoD services employ a top-down approach to TV and film that leaves no room for truly original content that tells country-specific stories.
As SVoD providers sand down their content in pursuit of soft-cornered global mass appeal, do they create great TV that learns lessons from the global marketplace? Or do they just produce media that is enjoyable to watch, but inherently lacking in something vital, individual, and important? I’d love to hear what you think!