Russian Doll and Sex Education | High concept goes delectably bite-sized

Netflix lands a double-whammy with Sex Education and Russian Doll - eight-episode series that grip you with a perfect hook and deliver a zany journey

Birds and the bees: Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield are an endearingly awkward mother-son duo in Sex Education
Birds and the bees: Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield are an endearingly awkward mother-son duo in Sex Education

I’ve been a little bit harsh on the feature-length content dished out by the global streaming giant Netflix of late, and my most recent salvo for the paper landed straight at the guts of Dan Gilroy’s potential-laden but lazily conceived satirical art-world slasher, Velvet Buzzsaw. But although Netflix does not quite seem to have their house in order when it comes to feature films - perhaps they’re too eager to just have big names in their stable and are too impatient to make way for the right amount of required polish that makes a film really look like a film - the same could thankfully not be said for a healthy chunk of the serialised content they’ve been offering up over the past season.

Thankfully, the new year appears to have begun with a bang for them, with two shows in particular exhibiting a likeability and verve one is unlikely to find in either the multiplex or on the higher-tier, higher-budget end of mainstream TV.

Now that it’s had some time to percolate - and even confirm a second season - we can certainly attest to the success of Sex Education, starring Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield as Jean and Otis Milburn, a mother-son duo with a penchant for sex therapy. Only, it’s the elder of the two who’s the bona fide professional… Otis ends up taking on the role after being goaded into it by his schoolmate and erstwhile love interest Maeve (Emma Mackey), while his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), struggling with his own sexuality, watches in bemused concern. Showrunner Laurie Nunn strikes the perfect balance between cringe-comedy and poignant observation, making this a series that’s perfect for the young adult crowd keen to identify with our core players, while the setting injects a jolt of nostalgia for us older folk.

New York, New York: Natasha Lyonne is on top form in Russian Doll
New York, New York: Natasha Lyonne is on top form in Russian Doll

In fact, the setting is something of an odd, if nonetheless inspired anomaly in the world of contemporary television. The series appears to be set in both the contemporary world of woke politics, mobile phones and Instagram, as well as a remote fantasy terrain that melds a British student population with the mores and rituals of the American high school. A satisfying, resonant and heady blend, crowned by a winning performance from Gillian Anderson - a nosy and overprotective mum of the most unconventional variety.

Though running on similarly spirited energy and an equally observant approach to contemporary social mores, Russian Doll is a far more high-concept affair, and very much set in New York where Sex Education is gleefully cavalier about its geographical location. Starring and co-written by Natasha Lyonne (American Pie, Orange is the New Black), along with fellow comedienne Amy Pohler (Parks and Recreation) and writer Leslye Headland (Bachelorette, Sleeping With Other People), the show posits a Groundhog Day-like scenario where Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne) is caught in a death-and-rebirth cycle on the night of her 36th birthday.

While this speculative element is somewhat rationalised away as the story begins to reach its well-earned climax, it is thankfully never allowed to overwhelm the emotional contours of the drama. Lyonne is absolutely on top form, rocking this partly-autobiographical story like it could not be anything other than her own. Her raspy voice of oh-so-New York demeanour make her a compellingly watchable presence. A video game programmer with a clear drinking problem, Nadia is also nursing a heavy bout of unresolved human trauma, which she’s finally forced to confront by the wholly unique situation that she finds herself in.

The beauty of the show is that there is no abrupt tonal shift between the ‘funny’ and the ‘serious’; it’s hinted at pretty early that Nadia’s jokey, cynical demeanour is nothing but armour, and Lyonne doesn’t miss a beat in portraying this lovable neurotic anti-hero of ours, who further down the line is joined by the far more ramrod-straight but equally damaged Alan (Charlie Barnett), who appears to be locked into the same cycle.

The verdict

With a quirky concept matched by its offbeat setting, Sex Education squeezes plenty of laughs and a dash of well-earned pathos out of its satisfying eight-episode run. And while that show has Gillian Anderson on top latter-day form, the spikier and weirder Russian Doll gives the unapologetically urbane presence of Natasha Lyonne a meaty role that finally matches the full range of her talents. All in all, it’s been a good season of lighthearted streaming-TV. Here’s hoping we can expect more eight-episode goodness from the streaming giant in the months to come.

Sex Education and Russian Doll are currently streaming on Netflix