Since its charming, raunchy, heartfelt first season, Sex Education has had audiences enamoured. The misadventures of a teenager moonlighting as a sex therapist while he and his friends navigate crushes, relationships, and, of course, sex.
As it returns for a third season, the underground sex clinic is a thing of the past. Moordale High is under new leadership. The students are exploring new relationships, and the Millburn household is preparing to welcome a new baby. So the stage is set for the most tumultuous season yet, and that is essentially what’s delivered. And that is both a good and bad thing.
One of Sex Education’s greatest strengths has always been the cast’s performances, and this season is no different. Ncuti Gatwa and Connor Swindells once again deliver standout performances as Eric Effiong and Adam Groff, respectively. Gatwa’s effusion and Swindell’s quiet intensity complement each other and perfectly highlight the burgeoning tension in their relationship.
The relationship between Adam and Eric has been divisive. Their obvious chemistry is burdened by the fact that Adam viciously bullied Eric for years. Resulting in the “homophobic bully is actually just closeted himself” trope, which leaves a sour taste in many viewers’ mouths. Although this season doesn’t subvert the trope itself exactly, it’s promising to see the characters’ respective journeys. Their exploration of their sexualities isn’t simplified into revolving around their relationship. Instead, they’re allowed to be complicated and messy outside of that. Eric’s trip to visit family in Lagos is particularly well done. Beautifully showing the intersection between sexuality & communities of colour and how QTBIPOC navigate life in non-western countries.
Another standout from the season is Aimee Lou Wood as Aimee Gibbs. Last season dealt with the upbeat, open, trusting Aimee experiencing a sexual assault that left her traumatized. While S2 gave her a moment of real catharsis at the end. The new season makes it clear it’s not shying away from the realities of healing. Taking Aimee through the long, difficult process of coming to terms with and trying to navigate life after an assault. Wood does an outstanding job at layering Aimee’s charming demeanour with vulnerability. Adding even more depth to the genuine struggle of realizing how much work it takes to heal.
Unfortunately, the weakest beat of the season is the central one. The school’s new headteacher, Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirk). Who is taking over Moordale and implementing an increasingly strict and repressive regime built around stifling the students. Sex Education has always embraced a stylized depiction of school. With viewers often noting how the British secondary school feels aesthetically more like an American high school. Overall, this stylistic choice has worked on adding to the show’s distinctive charm and aesthetic. However, this season, Hope’s crusade to purify the “sex school” means the show leans into ludicrously caricaturish territory. While the attempts to explore the culture of shame and its detrimental effects lead to some touching moments. It largely drags due to how painfully unrealistic it is.
The show has always grounded itself with its focus on realistic issues. But scenes of evil headteachers forcing students to wear Victorian-era shame signs. Or the school choir defiantly belting out obscene song lyrics to demonstrate their pride in themselves feel laborious. There are some entertaining results to how the show leans more exuberantly than ever into high school dramedy clichés. Like a trip to Paris provides one of the most absurd but undeniably hysterical sequences in the show. But on the whole, it feels like the show’s strayed too far from the candid handling of teen issues that made it so popular.
Speaking of which, there’s the Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Otis (Asa Butterfield) of it all. They serve as arguably the central ship of Sex Education. The couple audiences are supposed to long to see come together. And many do. But frankly, their storyline dragged and felt tedious more than anything else. The appeal of their opposites-attract dynamic in S1, where they worked together to run the sex clinic, was already fading throughout S2, where various romantic entanglements drove them apart. They barely interact by the start of this season, and both have more complicated relationships going on elsewhere.
Otis struggles to adjust to his new home life as his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), and her partner Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) prepare for a new baby. Meaning Otis now has to live with Jakob and Jakob’s daughter, his ex-girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison). The whole time, he is also navigating casual sex with Ruby (Mimi Keene). Meanwhile, Maeve remains embroiled in the operatically depressing saga resulting from her having called child support on her mother at the end of the last season, resulting in her half-sister being put in foster care. She grows closer to her neighbour Isaac, who viewers will recall sabotaging her star-crossed romance with Otis at the end of S2.
Amidst all this drama, Maeve and Otis don’t really get the space to do much more than trade meaningful glances now and again, along with Maeve making the occasional cryptic remark about people moving on and whatnot. Unfortunately, the show has dragged the will-they-won’t-they dynamic out too long without focusing on the “they”. Their storylines and character arcs don’t seem to have much to do with each other. Making it hard for the relationship to remind us why it’s meant to matter.
Still, there are other dynamics the show will keep you rooting for. The Maeve/Aimee dynamic duo is at its best this season, and Otis and Eric’s friendship continues to be lovely to watch. The show has always succeeded at putting together surprising combinations of characters and making us root for them, and there’s plenty of that to look forward to.
Sex Education remains as undeniably charming and funny and full of heart as it’s ever been. The cast is winning, and it’s constantly refreshing to see such an array of identities and issues approached and represented with candour and sensitivity. But this season has gone bigger and more bombastic than previous ones, and it feels like a lot of the authenticity, and lovable quirk that drew viewers in has given way to glossy cliches.