‘Sex Education’ balances absurdity, adolescent confusion

A promotional poster for "Sex Education" (2019- ) is pictured. via IMDB

I had my Google Calendar marked with an all-caps reminder for the return of the second season of “Sex Education” (2019–) on Jan. 17. In just eight approximately 50-minute episodes, which require a Herculean effort not to binge, the pilot season of Netflix’s British, teen comedy-drama had me hooked and fully invested in the absurd, venereal ongoings of Moordale Secondary. Raunchy, hilarious and heart-tugging, “Sex Education” creates a fresh, nuanced narrative within an over-cultivated yet ceaselessly popular market of high-school inspired television.

The first season introduced 16-year-old protagonist Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), who, as the son of a sex therapist, unintentionally developed sex expertise — despite his own lack of experience in that department. Teaming up with rebel-punk-genius Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) and encouraged by his flamboyant best friend Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) — who has yet to master the art of whispering — Otis creates an underground sex clinic, doling out much-needed advice to his chaotically horny classmates (and occasional teachers).  

More often than not, each episode opens with some semblance of an uncomfortable sex scene, an unsubtle reminder that perhaps the show is best paired with a bag of popcorn and not your extended family. Funnily enough, the show makes sex look … unsexy. Ditching the glamorous and unrealistic portrayals of relationships, “Sex Education” instead promotes the bumpy awkward moments of figuring out another person, in an honest and refreshing way. 

Season two opens with an Otis masturbation montage (which was, dare I say, a long time coming) and a school-wide chlamydia outbreak akin to the “Cheese Touch.” With mass hysteria formed from misinformation, Mr. Hendricks, the science/sex education/swing band/musical teacher’s “Mr. Sperm and Mrs. Egg” talks don’t quite cut it. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), Otis’ poised, sex therapist mother, intervenes to help Moordale address its deficiencies and unknowingly creates counseling competition against the clinic. 

While well-meaning, Otis’ advice remains ineffective in comparison to Jean’s professional counseling that also leads her to form a wonderful friendship with Maureen Groff (Samantha Spiro), wife of the unloving, mean Headmaster Groff (Alistair Petrie). 

Otis and Ola Nyman’s (Patricia Allison) coupling seems to be characteristically slow yet pleasant, although is complicated by the fact that their parents are also dating (whilst sporting matching swooshes of haircuts). Maeve’s admission of her feelings for Otis, Ola’s exploration of her sexuality and Otis’ series of negative choices and selfish behavior that enwrap him in a man-vs-self dilemma leave the love triangle in a tangled mess

Maeve, the bad-girl heartthrob, doesn’t quite catch a break though in the second season. Her mother returns, touting her younger half-sister, pledging sobriety and showing hopes of changing for the better. As much as fans may twiddle thumbs in apprehension for the Otis-Maeve love story, the larger focus is on Maeve’s struggle with fitting in and realizing her self-worth, as she finagles her way back into school, the advanced program, the “Quiz Heads” (Moordale’s quiz bowl team) and as always, our hearts. 

Meanwhile, fan-favorite Eric is awarded a more upbeat storyline than in the last season, involving a complex choice of his own with the arrival of Rahim (Sami Outalbali), the new, attractive French student, and Adam Groff’s (Connor Swindells) return, post-expulsion from military school. Rahim, bearing some resemblance to Drake, boldly and forwardly expresses his interest, unabashedly asking Eric out on a date and treating him with respect and romance. In contrast, Adam and Eric share wholesome nights out smashing plates, a secret rendezvous that serves as Adam’s only escape. 

While difficult to know who to root for, Team Eric seems to be the best answer. Although Adam’s character changed vastly for the better compared to season one, with realizations of his own identity against the pressures of masculinity, his history remains rooted as Eric’s former tormentor, creating a problematic narrative of bully-turned-lover

“Sex Education,” rich with colorful, oddball personalities finds its greatest resilience in an ensemble of recurring and new supporting characters that garner just as much interest and investment as the main-listers, especially as the second season explores multiple, fairly separate plot lines. 

Lily (Tanya Reynolds), on what must have been a startlingly insane budget, brought her erotic comic books to life as writer and director of Moordale’s “Romeo and Juliet: the Musical,” a rendition ripe with genitalia-themed costumes and carnal dancing, leaving Shakespeare either turned on or turning over in his grave. 

Innocently obtuse and highly lovable Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) discovers her life’s calling as a baker (reasonably explained by her love of toast), but faces a darker trauma after an unsettling incident on the bus. In a moving, powerful scene led by Aimee — and reminiscent of an angsty, female remix of “The Breakfast Club”(1985) — an unlikely gang of gals share their respective experiences with sexual harassment.

In an intense and emotional performance, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) grapples with mental health issues stemming from social and athletic pressure, turning to a newfound hobby, theater. Freshly added Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu), with doses of realness and an unmatched academic determination, tutors and befriends the star swimmer, helping him find his inner Shakespeare in exchange for advice “jigging” it up with her Quiz Head crush and Rubik’s cube fanatic, Dex (Lino Facioli). 

Channeled through interesting personalities, the breakout stars dazzle and seize every scene. The triumph of “Sex Education” continues to find its core within its enduring platonic — not romantic — relationships, a comforting solace after a complicated and unresolved second season. 

The show effortlessly balances its absurdity with relatability, attracting a wide audience beyond the typical teen drama and tackling various important issues along the way. Aesthetically blending time and location, with touches of retro to accompany its modern themes, “Sex Education” is not about one place or moment, but rather a colorful culmination of the adolescent experience. 

Needless to say, my calendar stands ready to reunite with the Moordale bunch in a (hopeful) season three.


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