BY MARTA ZABO
Sex Education creators used the UK/US mash-up to create a school that appeals to everyone, and where hope and color overwrite the teens’ anxieties.
Netflix’s Sex Education seems to mash up UK and US features, as well as different time periods: UK actors are in a US school, wearing 1980s apparel. The awkward teenagers wear varsity jackets (but no uniform), play American football, and go to huge proms. Their school is called Moordale High, it has a big American-style banner, and its hallways are filled with lockers that look straight from The Breakfast Club. And yet, the series’ cast speaks with a British accent, and the story is set in the fictional town of Moordale in Southwest England. Is there a reason behind this creative choice?
Sex Education follows various characters navigating friendships, sex, and relationships. The socially awkward Otis has a secret crush on Maeve, who lives in a trailer park but is exceptionally bright. Otis’ mom, Dr. Jean F. Milburn, is a (much too) honest sex therapist who keeps Otis on a tight leash as she tries to solve her own relationship problems. Adam is a bully who tries to come to terms with his sexuality and manage his complicated relationship with his father, Moordale’s (former) headteacher. Season 3 goes into a deeper analysis of relationships such as Jean/Jakob, Eric/Adam, or Otis/Ruby, which creates another major problem for Otis and Maeve’s friendship.
It might seem like the Netflix Original’s choice of combining UK with US elements (and time periods) is haphazard. But a simple look at the major success it had across continents may be the answer to the question: why the mash-up? Gillian Anderson, who plays Otis’ mom Jean, explained (via RadioTimes): “The rules are shifting all the time in terms of how an audience receives the shows that they’re watching.” By combining elements from numerous worlds, there’s a bigger chance the show will appeal to more people. And there’s another reason beyond the goal of transatlantic success. Show creator Laurie Nunn explained the confusing setting of Sex Education as a stylistic choice in the same interview: “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.” Nunn also said American TV played a big part in his own teenage years and that he wanted to return to that time through a show of his own.
Director Ben Taylor also added that the US elements (particularly the vintage ones) in a UK setting are a response to his frustration about UK schools always being portrayed in a negative light on television. This UK school with a UK (university) campus meets vinyl records, Letterman jackets, and Billy Idol singles as a way to bring some sunshine into the anxiety-stricken teens’ lives. Although Moordale might not feel like a real school, the 1980s Americana aesthetic gives it an authentic, community-friendly vibe, in stark contrast with the intimidating building. Executive producer Jamie Campbell added (via Media Show): “We wanted to do something different here and create an environment that reflects the best time of your life.” John Hughes aesthetics (from classics like Pretty In Pink) seem to do a good job reflecting that.
There is a myriad of differences between a regular UK sixth form and the Americanized school from Sex Education. Sixth forms don’t have giant campuses, nor do they make a huge fuss out of their sports teams. Huge proms with limos are not that common in the UK, either. And of course, the most striking things are the lockers and the lack of uniforms (with a sprinkle of heavy jewelry and makeup, which most UK headteachers would find inappropriate).
In Sex Education season 3, the new headteacher, Hope Haddon, introduces grey uniforms for all Moordale students. She has the lockers re-painted into a more drab color, and she bans hair dye and piercings. Apart from bringing discipline into the “Sex School,” this move also sees Moordale more grounded in the UK. But this is not the end of the UK/US blend in Sex Education. When Otis describes his own prom as “an appropriated American tradition,” he breaks the fourth wall and confirms the creative choice behind the UK/US mash-up.