“Ted Lasso”s rise in the Twitter-era has hit a brick wall in criticism, with folks on one side promoting pop culture’s need for positive, kind “content,” television and films alike, and the other raising eyebrows at the notion that “content” must necessarily mold itself to make audiences feel good. The trouble is that if “content” is expected to accommodate a specific dichotomy, and if “content” then violates that “dichotomy,” fan-writers revolt against it (not to mention the calamitous ill of viewing pop art as sugar-dense sludge to be consumed through a streaming IV). Now, let’s throw Netflix’s “Sex Education” into that mix, now entering its 3rd season after (surprise!) a pandemic delay put the show’s continuation on a pause.
Showrunner Laurie Nunn’s wonderful, warm, routinely bonkers sex-positive series comfortably fits into the same space as “Ted Lasso,” almost as if designed to raise spirits and give us all a reason to smile in a difficult social moment preceding a doubly difficult social moment. It’s possible that “Sex Education” will run into similar resistance as “Ted Lasso,” argued as a symbol of what viewers “need” instead of being observed as a comedy, a drama, and a sharp-witted survey of modern sexual hangups in the context of modern teenage life. Adults apply, too, but they’re back seated in favor of the kids, who aren’t exactly alright.
Summer’s over, and the new term at Moordale Secondary Term has begun. How’d the cast enjoy their time off? By screwing like rabbits, for the most part, documented in the first episode’s opening montage, set to a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Some sex is solo. Some is virtual. The majority is up close and personal, flipping between steamy, kinky, and steamy-kinky over the sequence’s course. But all of the sex is eye-opening, and if there’s anything we “need” now, it’s a reminder that sex is a character, and character feeds into the plot. Moordale, for instance, is under a media microscope having gained an unfair reputation as “the sex school” after last season’s events: Lily (Tanya Reynolds), noted author of alien erotic, put on a sex musical that caused a stir among students and Moordale’s administration, while a chlamydia outbreak caused equal alarm among the students.
None of this gets into the characters’ various heartbreaks and contretemps, like Jean’s (Gillian Anderson) unexpected pregnancy. But the cast soldiers on. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) openly dates his former bully, Adam (Connor Swindells), confronting his gay identity as Moordale’s old tough guy; Aimee (Aimee Lou Woods) struggles to enjoy intimacy with her boyfriend, Steve (Chris Jenks), and even self-intimacy, after being sexually assaulted in season 2’s 3rd episode; Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), Mr. Perfect, continues his rebellion against his perfect image. The list goes on, on, on. “Sex Education” deserves credit for making a gallery of character arcs that actually dovetail cleanly into one another without tangling threads. Nunn’s cast is huge. Her talent with story management outsizes her cast, though her co-writers — including Selina Lim, Alice Seabright, and Sophie Goodhart — are due credit for the accomplishment, too.
Most of all there’s Otis (Asa Butterfield), who has spent his summer casually nailing Ruby (Mimi Keene), Moordale’s resident mean girl (who might not be that mean, in fact), and Maeve (Emma Mackey), who hasn’t done much but hang out with Isaac (George Robinson), carrying a torch for Maeve just as he clutches his paintbrush with his lips, and his brother Joe (George Somner), while attempting to contact and make amends with her mom Erin (Anne-Marie Duff) for reporting her to social services for relapsing. A mouthful, that. “Sex Education” plays a “will they, won’t they” game with its stars, which made sense previously but feels exactly like that, a game, by now. Far more arresting is the tension Otis has with Ruby, a girl who doesn’t open up easily, and Maeve has with Isaac, who is less of a prick than he seemed while deleting Otis’ profession of love for Maeve in the season 2 finale.
“Sex Education” works when performing the unexpected. That’s the series’ throughline: Sex being increasingly verboten in media over the years since its premiere, focusing on the ins and outs of doing the in-’n-out feels practically daring, particularly couched in the lives of kids. Who needs comfort in sexuality more than kids? The adults have their share of neuroses, too, but those have to do with commitment; Jean, for instance, is reticent to let her ex, Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt), know that she’s carrying their child. It’s Otis’ classmates who desperately need counsel on sex and relationships, including platonic relationships. Friendship is key, too.
For all the bubbliness baked into “Sex Education”s sexual awakenings, there’s bitterness, too. Nunn’s DP, Oli Russell, quietly shoots actors at the edge of the frame, shadowed by dead space, emphasizing how lonely it is to feel misunderstood, unsupported, or just plain old bewildered by changes in body, mind, and status. It’s lonely being an authority, too, at least for Otis: The new headmaster, Hope (Jemima Kirke), isn’t filmed with the same austerity as the rest of the cast, probably because she’s too eager to put her stamp on Moordale and keeps finding solutions to non-problems that, piling one on top of the other, look awfully stodgy and dictatorial. Watching Kirke adapt her typically bohemian stance into sterner material is surprisingly fun; she’s still easygoing, but that easygoing quality tastes venomous. Hope sucks. A KRS-One needle drop (“Sound of da Police”) confirms it if her actions don’t.
The drama that springs between characters isn’t as earthshaking as the drama rising at Moordale, and this may be “Sex Education”s most important detail. Relationships will always, always meet conflict. But that’s okay. It’s normal. It’s even comforting to know that everyone’s relationships experience friction; that basic realization makes us all feel less alone. Nunn makes the world rumble with her overarching plot instead, and so “Sex Education” lets us feel, put in a word, good. But it doesn’t ask us to look away from all that makes us feel bad, either, and that’s even better. [B+]