Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Sex Education is back. And it is my pleasure to report that season two bangs pretty dang hard. Pun intended.
The teen sex dramedy picks up right where it left off (or rather, got off), with the precocious, late-blooming Otis (Asa Butterfield) finally getting in touch with himself. Pun intended…again! We return to the show’s gorgeous, if wholly ambiguous, country setting (part American 1980s, part UK noughties), and to the drama-rich halls of Moordale High. Otis and his lovely no-nonsense girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison) are taking things slow and Otis has retired from his self-appointed position as his school’s underground sex therapist. Dejected at her expulsion and in her feelings about Otis, Maeve (the crackling Emma Mackey) has gone awol. After overcoming the turmoil of season one, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa, a personified sunbeam) has emerged more radiant and resilient than ever, though thoughts of his former bully occasionally cross his mind.
Sex Education‘s large and achingly endearing cast remains one of its greatest strengths, and returning to these sweet, charming, and devastatingly awkward characters is a ridiculously joyful reunion. The always-charming Gillian Anderson remains untouchable as Otis’ intrusive mother Jean, who finds her glamorous domestic life unsettled by her unexpected foray into monogamy. Connor Swindells‘ closeted, recovering bully Adam is now at military school, internal as ever, coming to terms with his sexuality at this own pace. And of course, there’s dear sweet Lily Iglehart (Tanya Reynolds) whose commitment to her own unique flavor of weirdness blesses and uplifts everything she touches. Which, in this case, is a high school production of Romeo and Juliet.
Season two juggles the requisite interpersonal dramas while dabbling in a slew of subjects, from STIs to asexuality, that would be a welcome addition to any sex-ed curriculum. There’s joy and gritted teeth aplenty as Moordale’s students yet again awkwardly fumble their way through the trials and tribulations of hormones, existential crises, and the great cosmic joke of having a body.
In comparison to its predecessor, season two’s narrative focus is markedly loose. While Otis certainly acts as an anchor, it would be unfair to say that Sex Education is solely his story. With the central relational and narrative gambits well established in season one, season two’s approach is much more relaxed, dipping in and out of different characters’ lives, making room for their quirks, fears, and desires with contagiously giddy enthusiasm. Of course, a good degree of depth is lost with such a broad approach. It cannot be denied that the wheels of season two’s wagon are attached with screws in need of a good tightening. Where season one dabbled in romantic formulas with a knowing wink, with this go-round the familiar genre devices and clichés come across as more contrived and plot-servicing than ironic. This happens most egregiously late in the season with the lazy redemption of a previously abusive character.
While far from absent, Aimee Gibbs (played by the massively endearing Aimee Lou Wood) feels underutilized. This, despite her receiving a memorable (and, unfortunately, relatable) mid-season subplot that I dare not spoil here. Likewise, season two feels far less honed-in on Eric, who dominated much of season one. That said, my biggest if not only real hangup of last season was the show’s damage-centered approach to Eric’s arc, and the way his trauma (as a queer, effeminate, POC) was treated as a teachable moment for the show’s (straight, white) protagonist. So while Eric does feel less present this season and his arc leaves something to be desired, I am thrilled to see less attention on his suffering and more on his joy and growth.
Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, it would be unfair to characterize season two’s less-than-tight-narrative as a fatal flaw. An obvious benefit is that the broader approach creates opportunities to add depth to some of season one’s flatter characters, with headmaster Groff (Alistair Petrie), his wife (Samantha Spiro), Mr. Hendricks (Jim Howick), and Miss Sands (Rakhee Thakrar) all receiving a good fleshing out. The world of Sex Education feels richer, more intimate, and lived-in as a consequence, even if the emotional stakes and grounding narrative of our core cast suffer from the lack of focus.
And really it is such a simple pleasure: for a show to frame each and every character with such a gentle, attentive, humanizing lens. Despite the aforementioned hiccups, I really do think this is The Thing that makes Sex Education so special: this open-hearted, funny, brazen commitment to an empathetic way of being in the world and apprehending other people. Really, it’s an appropriate (almost non-negotiable) approach for a show this sex-positive to not only preach about the importance of trying to understand others in the face of the messiness of sex but to extend that understanding to its own characters. Human intimacy is a hotbed for the absurd. And Sex Education gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that sex and other human activities are magnets for ridiculous, frustrating, and awkward outcomes. There are no real mustache-twirling villains in Sex Education. No scapegoats or dehumanized Big Bads. Only miscommunications and misinformation. Which, appropriately enough, is the actual villain of sex education in the real world, too.
There is a paralyzing excess of choice in the age of streaming. Having watched all of season two, I can confidently say that Sex Education has more than cemented its status as a show worth auto-bumping to the front of your queue. While it doesn’t quite measure up to the excellence of season one, overall, this funny, sweet, and unrepentantly compassionate show has stayed the course. It’s a rewarding return to be sure, and one that more than sticks the landing in the end. Here’s hoping that season two’s wavering moments were nothing but growing pains.
For your viewing pleasure: both seasons of Sex Education are streaming on Netflix as of January 17th.