The Inbetweeners and Sex Education

Here’s a reflection I’ve been pursuing about contemporary culture, sexual attitudes, mores, popular entertainment, and humour, inspired by two TV sitcoms. You could frame it as an essay question:

Compare, contrast and evaluate The Inbetweeners, (2008-2010) and Sex Education (2019-present).

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The Inbetweeners
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Sex Education

They are apparently similar in being British comedy dramas about teenagers coming of age, and especially exploring their sexual identities, doing their best to look cool to their contemporaries, and to get laid as often as possible.

I quite enjoyed The Inbetweeners when it was first aired. I can’t say the same about viewing it again on Britbox, where it is currently available. Each episode opens with the moral health warning: Contains strong language and adult humour. This isn’t exactly true. The humour is relentlessly adolescent, and I would add, aimed at adolescent males. In the ten years since it first came out, there has been a huge sea change in the way we (or at least, I) react to this brand of humour. Perhaps it has been the effect of revelations about the abuse of women perpetrated by men, the whole #Metoo phenomenon, the language used by Donald Trump and others that sets out to humiliate, degrade and objectify women. I can no longer listen to Will, Simon, Neil and Jay’s conversations with even the wry recollection, “Yes, that’s just what being a spotty adolescent was like, my body raging with lust and hormones.” Now it’s just repulsive and gross.

Sex Education is different. It’s still about teenagers at a sixth form college agonising about sex, identity and the rest. It’s still a jungle in there – why is it that teenagers are often so outrageously cruel to each other? But it’s so much funnier, cleverer, more adult in fact, but without repelling in the same way. You might say, perhaps, that it’s about what the title says it’s about: these young people know more about sex (well, not always – witness among other examples the chlamydia “plague” panic in series 2, episode 1), and it’s also, seriously, about how they learn more. It’s also much more inclusive: girls have sexual desires and experiences as well as the boys. There are lots of strong female characters in the comedy, and they are often shown in a better, more sympathetic light than the boys. Adults have sexual desires and experiences too, and they form an important part of the action. The adults elicit our sympathy but also our disapproval, as they mistreat their pupils or children.

I thoroughly enjoy Sex Education and can watch it again without that disgust that not only The Inbetweeners, but other more vintage ‘comedies’, arouse.

What do others think?

Lewis: Wild Justice

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, we’ve been enjoying our way through the nine series of Lewis. And – dare I say it, for it sounds very much like heresy – I enjoy it more than I do Inspector Morse. I mean, I love John Thaw as Morse: I love his love of music and his disapproval of freemasons, I can smile at his curmudgeonabliness, (I’ve been known to get a bit grumpy myself, just occasionally), I can tolerate his constantly falling in love with unsuitable women, many of whom have a habit of ending up dead. What I found increasingly annoying was the running gag of his stinginess, never paying for a drink and expecting Lewis to pay every time. Robbie Lewis is altogether a much more likeable character, and I especially like the developing dynamics of his relationship with Hathaway, which so often reminds me of me and my brilliant curate.

Last night’s episode was Series 5 Episode 2, Wild Justice. I think this may be my favourite episode ever. It has just about everything, recycling many of the well-worn themes and conceits of all these dramas ‘inspired by the works of Colin Dexter’. Set in St Gerard’s, a mad religious institution in Oxford, where the crazed ‘not monks, they’re friars’ are all ferociously reactionary and resistant to, especially, the idea of women priests. The sinister Italian Father Mancini reads from Dante’s Inferno (in Italian) to the dying nasty English millionairess. The first victim is a black American woman bishop, so suspicion naturally falls on the mad misogynistic friars. There’s the woman academic, a specialist in Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies, which provide the manner of death for all the four murders that reveal Oxford, yet again, to be the Murder Capital of the World. (“Four murders in five days, Robbie!” exclaims Chief Superintendent Innocent. She should surely be used to it by now?) There’s the bitterly contested college election for the post of Vice Regent, where the (male) forces of reaction are pitted against the (progressive) women candidates. There’s the former violent criminal transformed by the love of a good woman into a gifted best-selling writer. There’s the woman who, aged 10, committed a gruesome murder, now grown up and given a new identity, and astonishingly transformed into a gifted academic. There’s the posh wedding reception held in the stunning new atrium of the Ashmolean Museum. There’s a kind of reference to two paintings by Fra Angelico that were discovered in Oxford shortly before the episode was filmed. And perhaps best of all (because I don’t remember this happening anywhere else in the whole oeuvre)

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

it was the butler who did it! in revenge for the long-ago murder of his grandparents, by the now-rehabilitated child murderer.

Really, how could you not love all this? We may not yet have had The Kiss (that comes a bit later in the series); but I’m sure you can see why I love this one so much.