TL;DR – This show keeps going from strength to strength with more in-depth storytelling.
Disclosure – I paid for the Netflix subscription that viewed this show
Sex Education Review –
If there is one show that constantly surprises me at how honest and explorative they will be, it would be Sex Education. Every episode is designed to both shock the viewer but then also be filled with deeply heartfelt stories. The combination creates a show that should be jarring, but rather than that, it just works. As we dive into the third season, there was always a chance that the steam would run out, that the juxtaposition would falter. While it might do that one day, this season still holds the line.
So to set the scene, at the end of Season Two, there was a lot of drama that befell the small town of Moredale. Otis (Asa Butterfield) finally expressed his love for Maeve (Emma Mackey) through a voicemail message, which would have been amazing if Isaac (George Robinson) had not deleted it. Jean (Gillian Anderson) discovered that she is pregnant with her ex-partner Jakob’s (Mikael Persbrandt) baby, and the hierarchy of Moredale Secondary School came crashing down when Michael’s (Alistair Petrie) plan to discredit Jean blew up in his face. Well, over summer, everything shifted, with Otis dating Ruby (Mimi Keene) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is starting a new relationship with Adam (Connor Swindells), But none of them are ready for the new headmistress Hope (Jemima Kirke), that is about to change all of their worlds. Now we will be looking at the season as a whole, so there may be some [SPOILERS] ahead.
Sex Education always has been an odd duck in that it will go out of its way to put a litmus test for people watching with one of the most explicit sex scene complications in its opening moments. However, it is also one of the most inclusive shows on TV at the moment, exploring narratives about diversity in all forms. It also helps that none of these stories feels tokenistic, integrating them into the narrative in genuine ways. You feel this because nothing fits into nice easy to be digested categories. This show like life is messy, with all the joys and heartbreaks that come with that.
At this point, it does feel a bit weird pointing this part of the show out, but I am continually impressed with it. Sex Education is a show out of time and place. It feels like it could comfortably exist in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, or even today. They can pull this juxtaposition off without it feeling jarring or worse hitting the uncanny valley because of the commitment of every department. The costumes, locations, set, props, actors, editors, and visual effects all have to be working at the top of their game to make this work fractured world work as seamlessly as they do. It also does help that they are set in a rural part of Britain where you could just believe this odd combination did exist in real life.
The narrative at the heart of this season is how different students react to the dramatic changes happening at Moordale Secondary School as a new headteacher arrives. I wondered if this was going to be the show leaning into the world of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? I say this because Sex Education loves to have callouts to essential teen films and cinema more broadly. Indeed, in the opening episodes, we do get a perfect 1917 homage. But thankfully, while we do wade into that area, what we get is a much more nuanced story. Hope is a much more complicated character in both what drives her and what holds her back. More than that, her prejudices are more subtle yet just as devastating. The way she demeans with a smile and undermines and divides with a wave of her hand or a simple comment, as we see with Vivienne (Chinenye Ezeudu), fits more with the reality than the bombastic Umbridge. All the while, she hides this under the guise of respectability, and you do feel that she believes she is doing right. This nuance creates a more grown-up villain and one that we have all met in our lives.
This season, we also see the show taking characters that might have been quite one-dimensional in previous seasons and showing they are anything but. Michael Groff is a bitter dejected man, who was neither a good husband nor father. Nothing this season changes that, but we get to see the world he grew up in, the same world that spawned his asshole brother Peter (Jason Isaacs). I liked that he got his big moment to stand up for himself, but it still does not change the past, nor does the show give him an out for his past behaviour. We get to see more behind what drives Ruby, which is essential because you need to understand that world to know why Otis hurt her so truly. The pain of letting someone in and discovering that they are not as committed to the relationship as you are is a deep hurt. Even Maeve’s mum Erin (Anne-Marie Duff), who is still profoundly flawed, has some moments to shine.
But in all this, there are the realities that not everything ends in a happy ending. Eric and Adam’s relationship did not last the season, but it felt like a natural evolution because neither of them was going at the same speed. Eric wanted to run while Adam was still finding his feet, meaning that both were a bad match for each other. Still, Adam discovered his passion this season and took tangible steps to better himself, and Eric’s story this season might have been the most significant risk the show has taken, and it paid off. Viv gets to be head girl, but it was at the expense of her friends. Jean and Jakob don’t end the season on firm ground. Cal (Dua Saleh) and Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) fall apart because Jackson can’t keep out of his own head. Even their whole plan to get rid of Hope just ends with the school getting shut down. The fact that this show make you care for every single member of the cast means that when you see them in pain, you feel it, that scene of complete public humiliation of Cal, Adam, and Lily (Tanya Reynolds) would not have been as confronting if you didn’t care. I think that scene dredged up some personal feeling that were difficult to process, so I have no idea what it would have been live to actually perform that.
Much focus on the show is on its more absurd moments, but even with these absurdities, the show still makes sure there is time for its heart to shine through. The scene of Cynthia (Lisa Palfrey) and Jeffrey (Joe Wilkinson) going at it so hard it knocks over the microwave killing their cat might be one of the most bizarre things this series has ever shown. However, it led to an honest exploration of grief and loss, and frankly, one of the most touching scenes in the whole show. Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) going to therapy and working through the trauma of her assault is difficult to watch. Indeed, even the threat of complications from pregnancy was given a level of seriousness it was due. It honestly made me deeply concerned for Jean’s survival in those final episodes, and you felt that pain in all of the cast’s performances.
While this was a profoundly affecting season, it was not a perfect one. While the show was built on the will-they/won’t-they of Otis and Maeve, it has outgrown it. So while I was glad that they dealt with what Isaac did last season quite early, unfortunately, it then comes back dominates the back half of the season, and it just becomes frustrating at times. As well as this, I know this just might be me sitting here now when they have not announced if we are getting a season 4 or not. Still, there were many dangling plot threads, and I am not sure they needed to dangle all of them [Editors Note: two hours after writing this, it was officially announced that there would be a Season 4].
In the end, do we recommend Sex Education? Well, from one perspective, you will probably know if this show is for you or not in the first 5 minutes, and your gut will likely be right on the front. But for me, it is some of the most creative and compelling work on TV/Streaming at the moment. If you think this might be your bag, I highly recommend checking it out to see for sure.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Sex Education
Directed by – Ben Taylor & Runyararo Mapfumo
Written by – Laurie Nunn, Sophie Goodhart, Alice Seabright, Selina Lim, Mawaan Rizwan & Temi Wilkey
Created by – Laurie Nunn
Production/Distribution Companies – Eleven Film & Netflix
Starring – Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, Connor Swindells, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Alistair Petrie, Mimi Keene, Aimee Lou Wood, Chaneil Kular, Simone Ashley, Tanya Reynolds, Mikael Persbrandt, Patricia Allison, Chinenye Ezeudu, Anne-Marie Duff, Rakhee Thakrar & Jemima Kirke with George Robinson, Jim Howick, Samantha Spiro, Hannah Waddingham, Sami Outalbali, Doreene Blackstock, Lisa Palfrey, Joe Wilkinson, Jojo Macari, Chris Jenks, Thomas Atkinson, George Somner, Lino Facioli, Conor Donovan, Dua Saleh, Jason Isaacs, Indra Ové, Robyn Holdaway, Sophie Thompson, Jerry Iwu, David Layde, Miles Jupp & Reece Richards
Episodes Covered – Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7 & Episode 8