Sex Education: The first great TV show of 2019

I think we can all agree, the only thing more awkward than the greasy, confusing, acne-ridden years of puberty were the embarrassing and wholly uninformative sex education classes taught by your elderly Maths teacher who broke into a sweat every time he said “vulva”. “Sex” was the hushed word on everybody’s lips and with it spread increasingly ridiculous myths like a bad case of oral herpes. No one knew anything, even the people who had already “done it”. Thankfully, current media has picked up the mantle school curriculums so clumsily dropped and have taken it upon themselves to impart their wisdom of the nether regions. Netflix has already opened eyes to the grim truths of puberty with their hit show Big Mouth – a funny and ridiculous cartoon that everyone should check out, even if they think they know everything about S-E-X – and now they continue their wildly entertaining educational journey with Sex Education.

Sex Education follows Otis (Asa Butterfield of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas fame), a sexually repressed young man with a sexually liberated mother, Jean (played by the utterly fantastic Gillian Anderson of X-Files). Jean works from home as a sex therapist and despite this being a topic of distress for the irked Otis, it soon becomes apparent that her skills have rubbed off on Otis. Maeve (Emma Mackey) – a wickedly smart and blunt social outcast at high school – recognises Otis’ talent after seeing him couch a fellow student through a sexual problem. Maeve, being the cunning young entrepreneur that she is, convinces Otis to set up a high school-based sex counseling business with her for their sexually hapless student body. The plot unfolds with all the whacky fun and explicitly captivating sex tales you would imagine from this setup.

Along with a long line of ridiculous yet fully relatable sexual drama, the show also outlines a clear and captivating story arch thanks to the brilliance of the characters. It would have been so easy to simply rely on worn out high school stereotypes but thankfully Sex Education takes time to craft fully realised, complex characters. Thanks to this, it’s difficult to find a character you fully dislike as everyone has a characteristic that people can relate to or empathise with. The show strives to show that there’s more to people hidden behind the guise of Jock or Bully or Popular or Nerdy – everyone’s going through similar puberty issues and everyone’s got their backstory.

The realness portrayed on screen is helped in large part by the excellent casting. There wasn’t a weak performance in the bunch; everyone fully encapsulated their character. Amazingly, the majority of the main young cast are all fairly new to acting, with some only having two or three credits on their IMDB pages; this would not be at all recognisable based on their performances. Performances from Ncuti Gatwa (who played Otis’ enthusiastic and lovable best friend, Eric) and Emma Mackey, in particular, demonstrated a sort of tender beauty which should certainly help launch their acting careers.

The series offers more than any school curriculum could – it’s got intelligence and heart. The wide and inclusive scope of topics explored are handled with care and respect. The show takes time to analysis and explores each character’s issue and it gives the audience time to care and empathies even if they cannot personally relate. Although the show seems to tick off the list of topics that should be discussed, it never feels forced or like the audience is receiving a lecture and that’s mainly because the show as a whole feels so real and cleverly crafted.

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Brains isn’t all Sex Education has, it’s bright in more ways than one. The actually visual aesthetic is brilliant in its fun, retro style. The series looks like a visual ode to American 80’s rom-coms from the likes of John Hughes, with enough eye-assaulting bright colours and clashing patterns to give a vintage fashion fan wet dreams. Despite the complete 80’s feel with aged architecture and furniture completing the retro portrait, it’s clear the series is not actually set in this period due to modern technology continually cropping up. Visually, it’s more like a little-idealized pocket of time that’s free from the constraints of reality.

This series was a delight, with far too many brilliant plot points and characters to discuss in just one review. Sex Education should be added to everyone’s Netflix list, whether you’re a sexual novice or practised expert. It’s difficult not to feel attached to the characters of Sex Education and with a second series planned, fans will surely be excited to see what’s still to cum (sorry). – Michaela Barton (@MichaelaBarton_)              

rating 9

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Looking for some dark, spooky fun? The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has you covered

Sabrina Spellman is facing all the typical troubles of teen-hood – a bully infested school, conflict with parental guardians, the looming spiritual imprisonment into Satan’s servitude, balancing friendships and a love life. Just classic teen drama, really.

A gritty reboot of a silly 90’s sitcom had so much potential to fail and yet The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina defy low expectations and proves itself a thoroughly decent show. Thank Satan for that! Sabrina’s life is messy, even more so than your typical adolescence, and sometimes this messiness can seep into the storytelling technique but despite some slight missteps, the journey as a whole is still entirely bewitching and rather charming.

Even though people are initially going to compare this show to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it’s actually based on a comic series and is written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also created the Netflix series, Riverdale. The series opens with our half-mortal, half-witch heroine, Sabrina, having to make a decision between her two lives. To fully come into her witch powers, she must sign her soul away to the Dark Lord in a coming-of-age ceremony however, this would also result in her giving up her human life, human friends and human boyfriend.

Despite playing with some dark, satanic plot points, this series still delivers the fun, mostly thanks to the excellent cast. As in the 90’s sitcom, the aunts are a prominent source of entertainment with their often-tumultuous relationship. Zelda and Hilda, played by Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings) and Lucy Davis (The Office) respectively, act as Sabrina’s stern, logical voice of reason and her bumbling, empathetic heart. The one notable missing ingredient to the classic crew is the dryly witty and meme-able Salem the cat. Salem is present in this series but as a mute, protective Familiar of Sabrina. Though this alteration may be enough to turn old fans off the show entirely, all is not lost. The reins of sarcastic quip dispenser are picked up by Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose.

Ambrose is a British, pansexual warlock bound to the house by a curse and living out their days helping the aunts with their funeral business. Though they’re not given as many classic lines as the 90’s sitcom Salem, they’re still a cheeky, laidback confidant for Sabrina and the acting performance of Chance Perdomo is brilliantly enjoyable.

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The only slight hiccup (and I really do mean slight) in acting ability is the main star Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame. As a whole, she is a more than competent actor – she’s enduring, wholesome and you can’t help but root for her. However, she may be too sweetly innocent. In parts of the show which demands a sinister edge, it’s hard to see past her child-like innocent demeanour. However, seeing that she plays a sixteen-year-old who’s newly entering a darker period in her life, this tameness can be forgiven.

Other areas of the series suffer from slight stumbles also. Occasionally, the exposition vomit from characters can be clumsy and jarring, especially in the first episode. Despite the relatively short run of the series (with only 10 episodes), the show still can’t escape the mistake of using  a “filler episode” which really doesn’t contribute anything to the overall story arc and leads the series to feel like an unimportant Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, with the dodgy monster costume design only hammering home this feel. The monster design throughout the series was rather hit-and-miss, with some looking like cheap trick-or-treat costumes. Oddly, for once the CGI was actually fairly decent, which suggests most of the budget went to this, leaving practical monster design quality to lag behind.

This show could have easily been light teen drama fluff but thankfully they do deliver with the horror. A lot of sequences are genuinely chilling, with sinister visuals that stick with you. There are plenty of storyline and visual references to classic horrors like the Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Cronenberg, the fun is in trying to recognise them all – there are certainly enough to keep a horror buff entertained.

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Another way they keep the show from leaning towards “useless fluff” is through the exploration of feminism. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina uses witchcraft to explore female empowerment within the limitations set by men. The coven is described to Sabrina as her only path to power and yet the coven is controlled by male figures – the slimy high priest (Richard Coyle of Coupling) and Satan. These are who give witches their power but only at the cost of submission and enslavement. The ceremony of joining the Black Church is even described as a “marriage” to Satan. It’s this sacrifice of freedom that Sabrina fights against.

The series also presents another female-led group fighting for power except this group is the complete opposite of the Black Church. WICCA is a group Sabrina and her human friends created – it’s a group created for women by women to fight for more representative education and against transphobia in the school. The series is clearly conscious of social issues and represents LGBTQ+ and race discussions throughout but without seeming too overly preachy, which should keep people afraid about those mythical “PC police” quiet (though, let’s face it, they rarely give up an opportunity to complain).

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was enjoyable. Was it fantastic and without fault? No. The pacing was often a bit sloppy, acting occasionally cheesy and some special effects questionable. But did it hook me in and get me invested in the characters and plot points? Absolutely. If you’re looking for a spooky and fun binge this Halloween, this series is the show for you. – Michaela Barton (@MichaelaBarton_)

rating 7

TV Review: GLOW

By Will Hardie (@netflixandwill)

Spoiler alert: you like wrestling. Wrestling is storytelling distilled to its purest base contents: there is a force of good, there is a force of evil, there is a conflict, and there is a resolution. Wrestling is the last true performance art, in this huge wrestling nerd’s humble opinion, and GLOW, the new Netflix series based on the real-life 1980s women’s wrestling company Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, conveys this fantastically.

The show follows a myriad of characters, both in their “staged” wrestling personas, and authentic selves, through their attempts to start a women’s wrestling promotion. The director Sam Sylvia, the archetypal sleazy horror movie director played expertly by Marc Maron, is assigned the task of casting women to play wrestlers for a TV pilot; ranging from Alison Brie’s lead character Ruth, a struggling actress newly entranced with the world of wrestling, Betty Gilpin’s Debbie, an established soap actress juggling a newborn baby with a broken-down marriage, actual Kate Nash off of the music charts and everything playing British model Rhonda, and Gayle Rankin’s Sheila The She-Wolf, who finds that the “costume” she finds herself wearing every day is not too dissimilar to the wrestling personas adopted by others.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between GLOW and Netflix-stalwart Orange is the New Black, created by the executive producer of GLOW; certainly, the female-driven ensemble cast and the gritty storylines draw more than their fair share of similarities, but GLOW definitely shines brightly in and of itself. The attention to detail in terms of the period setting is spot-on; however many leotards you think there might be in an athletic-focused 10-episode series, there are definitely more. There’s also a gratuitous roller-skating scene, because of course there is. It features a range of complex characters, each with their own unique motivations and reasons for getting into the wrestling business, and each character is given room to grow throughout the 10 episodes. For an ensemble cast, there is a refreshing lack of stock characters.

The show perfectly captures the camp, cheesy gloriousness that was the 1980s, wrestling, and 1980s wrestling. The blending of real life and the hyper-exaggeration of professional wrestling matches is effortlessly displayed in Debbie’s realisation that wrestling is just a soap opera with added brutality. And motorcycles. And fireworks, and crowns, and glitz and glamour, and anything that makes the base senses swell and excite towards a terrific climax. Cameos from real professional wrestlers, both on the show itself and behind the scenes, help add to the show’s sense of authenticity, and the range of storylines, will keep you hooked at every turn.

GLOW deals with the balance of real-life interpersonal conflict, and staged, hyper-exaggerated conflicts in the context of a wrestling ring; the audience comes to realise, however, that there is very little difference between the two. GLOW highlights the wrestling-ness of the real world, and the real world-ness of wrestling; in Sunita Mani’s character Arthie’s struggles to draw on her heritage to play a problematic “bad guy” character that draws seemingly real anger and revulsion from the braying mob of a wrestling audience, we see the intense blurring of the lines between “characters” and their actors. It becomes hard to distinguish from the “fake” rivalries between wrestling characters, and the real rifts between their creators.

The show does not shy away from addressing wrestling’s tricky public image; rather, through the character of yuppie producer Sebastian “Bash” Howard, there is a real effort on the part of the show’s creators to highlight positively those with a genuine passion for the pageantry, the extravagance, and the visceral brutality of wrestling. GLOW puts forward the case that wrestling fandom is not something to make apologies for, or to hide away from, but to be celebrated for its ability to bring people together.

Put simply, GLOW is a loveletter to the art of wrestling, and it makes no apologies for being such. It’s satire. It’s comedy. It’s tragedy. It’s romance. It’s everything a storytelling medium can and should be. You might not be a wrestling fan at the moment. After GLOW, your curiosity might just have been peaked. If it is, watch some Sasha Banks matches on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

9/10


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TV REVIEW: Master of None – Season 2

By Fraser Nunn (@badknitbear)

Allora! Turns out it just means ‘well’ but I can’t help but agree with our main man Dev Shah: it’s a pretty word.

Master of None seemed to catch everyone by surprise, Aziz Ansari previously being primarily seen as the pain in the ass Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation. I think a lot of us expected something more akin to his Parks and Rec role for Master of None season one but his performance as Dev Shah surprised us by being an incredibly deep ‘little bud’ that is full of life, energy and love.  If anyone watched the first series without wanting to hug him every time he smiled then I would argue that they don’t deserve Netflix. Now that the show has returned for a second season, let’s venture into this series full of wit, heart and, most importantly, pasta.

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Dev spends the early parts of the second series getting over his break-up with Rachel, and it’s evidently a pretty pivotal theme of the early half of the series: Dev spends a lot of quality alone time (not the bathroom kind), eventually meeting and gaining the phone number of a very nice British lady and then immediately losing said number to a thief. The black and white of this episode in the setting of Moderna, (vaguely ironic I suppose) makes the episode absolutely stunning and there’s something about riding a little bike around Italy and making pasta in black and white that just makes me want to be Dev.
We also see Dev dining on more pasta alone, and with his big bud, the lovable Arnold. Arnie teaches him how to say “hi cutie” to some ‘hi cuties’ and Dev takes this as an excuse to send a little ‘hi cutie’ flirtatious Gif to Rachel.  We get some obligatory pasta scenes in “Osteria Francescana”, one of the world’s best restaurants and honestly you can try not to salivate over it but that scene is amazing.  Arnie also has some ulterior motives in regards to his own lost loves which Dev has to talk him down from with the help of some tasty melon and a scooter trip. It gives Arnold some serious scenes which he sells incredibly well but it maintains its comic brilliance behind it so that no one sinks into some terrible depression over any lost loves in their own lives.

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“La Nozze” allows Arnie to bring our little Dev back to the Big Apple and back to his friends and family and new gig, hosting ‘Clash of the Cupcakes’. When back in New York, Dev has a difficult situation to face with his parents: they ask him to lie to his super religious relatives about his dedication to his faith and of course Dev obliges but feels off, he is eventually persuaded to tell the truth after a chance encounter with Denise when Dev and his Cousin skip Eid prayer to go to a Barbecue and eat Hella pork with a wide set bearded man. Obviously, this causes friction between Dev and his parents who ,I’ve got to say, I thoroughly enjoy watching on screen. Dev’s Dad Ramesh seems to quickly resolve everything by letting Dev know that he can do what he wants, eat pork, “smoke Mary Jane” but doing these things infront of his mum is not cool and “it hurts her feelings”. Soon after Dev and his mum reconcile and it just manages to be another amazing episode in the series and is probably one of my favourites of the second season.

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The season continues, as does the theme of break ups, seeing Dev start to delve into the terrifying and daunting world of online dating. It’s immediately clear that they’re tackling both the ease of access of the new online dating community as well as the idea of over dating: you can see Dev meets a total mix of people from friends he already knew, new friends he thought he had a chance with and the racist he goes home with. This episode lets us see into the world of moving on and Dev stares down rejection and girls he has no interest in, and through that we see some hilarious interactions and truly awkward moments and a totally new side to Dev and the way it’s cut makes each First Date work so well together.

We start to see a bit of a shift in the direction of the series when Dev’s lovely Italian friend comes over from Moderna. Francesca and Pino take a trip to New York, while Dev weighs up his happiness at “Clash of The Cupcakes” as we see him growing more and more unenthusiastic about his “uninspiring” role. Dev and Francesca visit a musuem together and start to catch up while Pino has to work. This is the first time we see Dev start to mix his work and personal life, as he meets up with producer and celebrity Chef Jeff who invites him and a guest to a dinner party. Dev weighs up who to take, contemplating one of the girls from the previous episode, but after 2 dates the conversation has gone flat (not sparkling) so instead he takes Francesca and immediately we see the flicker of excitement as something starts to brew beneath the surface. This episode is probably one that doesn’t have as much magic as the rest of the Series but Dev’s interactions are amazing, and there’s no doubt romance is in the air as soon as the John Legend cameos behind a grand piano.

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It’s not often you see a series step away from its main character and focus on the people they pass on the street. Master of None manages this beautifully as we meet a barrage of New Yorkers as they go about their daily lives. We meet Eddie the doorman, the loveliest doorman in New York, a man who does everything he can for those who inhabit his building. He attempts to medicate a parakeet on incredibly vague instruction, and is taken advantage of by a horny Mr Strickland and his mistress. When caught, Strickland lets out a tyrade against the poor doorman, who ain’t taking none of it. Honestly this segment is excellent, a primarily ignored doorman becomes the sole focus and it sits so well, it’s easy to love Eddie and it’s just as easy to love Maya, the store clerk who is having a little trouble in the bedroom department.

Maya is deaf and it makes for one of the most interesting scenes in the series, with no sound and all interactions in subtitled American sign language, it’s easy for the characters to think they have privacy, and their topic of conversation provides one of the funniest scenes of the show so far.

The transitions were amazing and we’re led seamlessly into meeting Samuel the taxi driver who lives in a cramped little apartment with his roommates. They save up their cash to head out for a night on the town and get turned away from the nightclub they’re hoping for, eventually being persuaded into a shady little bar blasting ‘vengaboys’. The boys leave and meet a group of girls and they get to partying in a closed burger shop! Once again, it’s just an incredible sequence which manages to create a sense of belonging for these characters who are simply passersby in the life of Dev as they all venture to the Cinema.

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Vaguely reminiscent of the episode dedicated to parents in season one, we have door 3. Dev grows increasingly exasperated by his job hosting Clash of the Cupcakes, leading him to seek wisdom from papa Ramesh (the best part of any episode). Dev’s story is not the sole focus here as well, as we see Dev’s good friend Brian and his dad, who has just started dating again. Caught between two woman, who each have a trait Brian’s dad can’t resist. Honestly, the interactions between both father and son parties makes this episode amazing, incredibly funny and one warning to anyone who visits Dr Ramesh Shah’s practice, don’t touch his trinkets. Dev’s story leads to him having the opportunity to pitch a new show idea to Chef Jeff, which he takes to immediately but Dev’s mind is elsewhere with the news of Francesca and Pino’s engagement. 

It’s not often that you get two absolute belters from a show but that’s exactly what Master of None consistently offers, especially when after ‘New York, I love you’ we are gifted the absolute peach that is Dev’s Thanksgiving traditions. The episode is primarily flashbacks seeing the growth of his friendship with Denise or apparently… DD. It shows Dev’s relationship with Denise’s family and how welcomed he is as part of the family. We see how Denise’s mum and her aunt take to the relationships she has, their reactions to her coming out as a lesbian and her partners. Denise’s mum struggles with the idea at the time but Denise knew from a young age and shared the information with Dev. Thanksgiving gives the opportunity for Denise to introduce her partners to her family and some go down better than others (nipplesandtoes23. Not nipples&toes23. Nipplesandtoes23). But this episode is riddled with poignant emotional moments that are full of love and humour and seeing Dev in this kind of family shows how tight he is with his friends, and how much love he has for them.

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By this point we somehow find ourselves at the last few episodes of the season and the only problem so far has been “how did we get to the end already”. It’s one of those whirlwind series that disappear before your very eyes. It maintains focus and it feels like the main story is simply a side plot for the simple reason that it is a side plot. Dev’s life is the main story, and the Best Food Friends storyline and the Francesca storyline slide in to be a massive part of his life. I don’t actually want to ruin any of this for anyone who’s still to catch the last few episodes. The rest of the series is one of those series where nothing major happens and nothing really exists as a spoiler but the last two episodes are what everything has been leading up to and none of it disappoints!

The series as a whole is full of warmth: it’s beautiful, poignant and smart. It’s witty and has a sense of normalcy about it. There’s no extravagance, no bells or whistles, just a lot of love in the life of everyone’s little bud, Dev. Give it a go if you like understated, if you like colourful, if you like character based humour or if you like dramady: in short, just give it a go.


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TV REVIEW: House Of Cards – Season 1

Breaking Bad meets politics meets Shakespeare in Netflix’s greatest, grittiest show.

“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong. Or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act. To do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing” says protagonist Frank Underwood before proceeding to break an injured dog’s neck. “There, no more pain.” And with that, House of Cards begins as it aims and succeeds to be for the entirety of its first season: a delightfully dark masterpiece.

Politics is an absolute minefield of a topic and creating a show that revolves around it can be a hard sell to many, least of all those from outside the US who may be oblivious to how it all works with words like senate and delegates being foreign to them. Thankfully, for the most part anyway, this is all window dressing for a dark and narcissistic tale where the aforementioned  Underwood  is our hero.

Or so it seems. Underwood manifests unprecedented charisma while also possessing the traits of some of literature’s most twisted beings, more specifically Shakespearean ones as he sets outs to get revenge on none other than the President with an intricate and well thought out plan which is reminiscent that of Iago.

A complex and chilling character, Underwood, played superbly by Kevin Spacey, will immediately remind anyone smart enough to watch Breaking Bad of that show’s anti-hero Walter White. Whereas we started off with Walter White as a nice natured, family man and slowly witnessed his transformation, House Of Cards lets us know from the get go that Underwood is a man out for himself, unwilling to stop for anyone and anything that prevents him from getting what he wants.

This makes the show, just like its characters, a conflicted one. The viewer will go from praising Underwood for his drive and dedication to being repulsed by his actions and his lack of empathy, usually all within the space of a few minutes. Being a Netflix show, House of Cards benefits from this as it’s immensely difficult to predict what Underwood may do next, meaning that watching”one more episode” will undoubtedly lead to you devouring the season within a day.

A show is only as strong as its characters though and thankfully House Of Cards provides more than just one interesting one. Just like Frank himself, his wife Claire is someone that yearns for power, a true Lady Macbeth figure who isn’t totally reliant on her husband for storylines. The chemistry between Claire, played by Robin Wright, and Spacey’s Underwood is magnificent and a true joy to behold, showing both respect and resentment towards one another in an almost serial killer-esque fashion.

Not only that but we’re introduced to even more characters at battle with themselves. There’s perky new journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) who walks the line between, as IGN expertly put it, becoming a shark, or simply learning to navigate the waters infested with them. U.S congressman Peter Russo also has his own battles though unlike Mara’s character, his demons lie at the bottom of a bottle, something he must deal with on his road to redemption. All of this means that there are hardly any filler scenes as each moment in an episode is as essential as the next.
As the show came out three years ago, there’s very little new insight I can give when reviewing House Of Cards but I couldn’t tear myself away from the screen whenever it was on. Full of tragedy, multiplex ties, fourth wall breaks and great cinematography (what else do you expect when David Fincher produces the show), House of Cards stands amongst some of my favourite shows with its sublime execution.

Any show that can do that is worth more than just a mention.

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