School’s back in session and, despite years of sexual repression, you’ve finally learned how to masturbate. You’re masturbating in the bathroom, masturbating in the shower, masturbating in the woods and masturbating in the car. That’s right, your name is Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) and this is “Sex Education” season two.
“Sex Ed,” as the fans call it, premiered on Netflix last year, with a subtly fresh take on a rather tired television format, daring to ask “what if a dramedy about teenagers was honest and not stupid?” Few shows have attempted this novel idea before, and even fewer have achieved it. The basic premise is the same as any other teen show: a bunch of hormone-addled, child-grownups must navigate friendships, romantic relationships and school. Season one followed Otis as he and his friend/eternal romantic interest, Maeve (Emma Mackey) ran a covert “sex clinic” at a suburban British school, Moordale High. Otis’s mother Jean, brilliantly played by Gillian Anderson, is an accomplished sex and relationship therapist, so Otis uses the knowledge he’s picked up around the house to educate his classmates. Although the sex clinic doesn’t play as large a role in season two, the themes of sex-positivity and self-discovery are still central to “Sex Ed.”
Now “Sex Ed” is back and better than ever. The cast is bigger, the stories are bigger and the school’s sci-fi, musical-space-orgy adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is about as big as it can get. Most of the show’s increase in scale can be classified as growth (no pun intended), although at points season two’s narrative ambition outpaces its execution. The cast has ballooned to nearly 15 main characters, and although all of their performances are strong, episodes sometimes felt overwrought, with too many B- and C-plots to keep track of. To summarize the season by telling you that Otis must navigate his first romantic and sexual relationship would be ignoring 85 percent of the events of season two. Writing the first draft of this review, I failed even to mention that Maeve’s estranged, drug-addict mother and half sister moved in with her, because there’s simply so much going on that this earth-shattering event for the second-most important character slipped my mind.
The season felt slightly unfocused, which is a shame because what “Sex Ed” does well, it does really well. It displays sex without selling it, and examines emotional hardship without fetishizing it. In other words: it’s like “Skins” if “Skins” was well made (fight me). In fact, “Sex Education” shares a lot of the entertaining elements of “Skins”—the hugely popular British teen dramady that tackled, or more accurately, assaulted, topics such as substance abuse and sexuality—while avoiding most of its pitfalls. It has the same charming accents as “Skins” with none of the romanticized misery. It isn’t just a vehicle to put underage nudity on screen (all the actors are in their 20s anyway). It’s a study of all sexual colors and varieties that teenagers, and humans, experience. Sometimes this is funny, sometimes it’s romantic, sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and often it’s confusing—it is sex, after all—but it’s never pornographic. A good indicator of how much “Sex Ed” works is seen in how wide a range of viewers it appeals to. Sure, I enjoyed “Skins” when I was a teenager—their lifestyles were seductive—but a show that thrives only on voyeurism doesn’t hold up. “Sex Ed” appeals to viewers of nearly all ages, not by selling the corruption of youth, but by making light of how hard growing up can be and how worthwhile that struggle is.
The writers are adept at balancing lighter and funny plots with more serious ones. Numerous queer characters of color such as Ola (Patricia Allison), Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Anwar (Chaneil Kular) have uplifting stories of self-discovery and healthy communication, while issues of sexual assault and self-harm are addressed head-on. Maeve’s new neighbor, a lanky, witty, slightly arrogant and mostly lovable character is suspiciously named Isaac (George Robinson), but he’s also an emotional life-line for Maeve as she deals with her greatest hurdle of the show.
Bad things certainly happen in the world of “Sex Ed,” but there’s always friends and family to help you get through it. Otis and Eric’s friendship is still probably the most wholesome male-male friendship on television. One of the benefits of a TV show with nearly thousands of principal characters is that there’s a friend for everyone. There’s always a shoulder to cry on, a hug waiting for you after a terrible day or a wheelchair-ridden orphan who understands your abandonment issues even more than you do. The stories are heightened but believable. This is a world you want to live in, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s beautiful.