Netflix Originals have variable success. Shows such as Stranger Things, Russian Doll, and Ozark find mostly-stable positive receptions, whereas Ginny & Georgia will be labelled ‘embarrassing’ for its cynical attempts to ‘start conversations’. Many people seem to take Sex Education, created by Laurie Nunn, as the former. It has a large and dedicated fanbase and is consistently praised for its open discussion of topics of sex and intimacy. The show portrays sex not as something titillating for the audience but as an act shared by people, and has been commended for its use of an intimacy director during sex scenes.
It’s strange, then, that Sex Education struggles to have anything controversial or cohesive to say about sex – or education, for that matter. Sure, it transposes real-world issues with sex education and schooling systems into its heavily-fictionalised world, but there’s little meat or edge to the writing. Motivations rarely have an impact on character’s actions, and there is no deeper questioning of sex and intimacy as human acts or desires. On the scale between Russian Doll and Ginny & Georgia, I’d unfortunately-yet-comfortably place Sex Education towards the latter end.
The virginal Otis (Asa Butterfield) starts a covert sex education clinic at sixth form with ‘cock-biter’ Maeve (Emma Mackey), much to the dismay of his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). It’s a clever inversion of typical teenage fantasies shown in teen dramas, taking a positive view of sex as opposed to the seedier side that teenage life tends to fall on. The writing in the first series, where that clarity of tone and concept is at its strongest, is engaged enough to explore this idea. I ended season one with few questions remaining – from abortions to closeted life and homophobia, performance anxiety and that teenage desperation to lose one’s virginity, everything was covered. As a will-they-won’t-they story between Otis and Maeve, the show works too. As a piece happily sitting in the teen drama subgenre, and an explicit attempt to ‘change the tune’ on perceptions of sex in media and in reality, it’s satisfying and effective.
So, I immediately found myself questioning why I was now watching a second season. Not by virtue of the show having later seasons, but by the fact that the show found itself with little interest or understanding of its focuses or characters. That initial spark of ‘sex-positive teen dramedy’ begins wearing thin quickly into the second season, and by season three, it’s abandoned much of that creative vision. This isn’t an issue on its own, but there’s nothing worthwhile that seems to replace it. The show shudders onwards in typical bad TV fashion, jamming various and disparate characters together like action figures in an overwhelming and unsatisfying drive for more content to fill the time.
There are definitive positives and a merciful lack of self-congratulation across Sex Education’s first three seasons. Eric is very rarely relegated to the ‘gay black best friend’ trope, and Gatwa’s performance is consistent in its humour and warmth. There’s a humanistic interest in his life and experiences, even while many other secondary characters get little comparable, genuine care put into their lives and stories. In season one, his role is very clearly in spite of that archetype – we quite often see him hurting as a result of Otis’ diverted attention away from their friendship and towards the sex clinic. It’s never gratuitous, another explicit creative decision to move away from exploiting gay and black suffering, and there’s enough of a balance between grit and warmth for it to work.
Season three introduces Cal, a new non-binary student. At a basic level, I can understand and respect the decision to write a non-binary character. Trans diversity in media is widely lacking from the mainstream, and this inclusion is easy to take as an earnest choice to represent wider realities and experiences in fiction. This is invariably and objectively a good thing, for the art form, the people making it, and the people watching it. Cal, similar to Eric, believes that the prejudice they face is wrong on a personal level. There’s a side character in season three who is also non-binary, and the two of them face similar struggles in school. Cal doesn’t react to this until the other character approaches them for help. Because, like a real person would, Cal is fundamentally a person and not an idea. They have the tendency to act, if not selfishly, then in regards to themselves as an individual and not as a warrior from some grand idea of ‘equality’.
That’s one of the only times it happens, though. At many points in the show, characters will have bad things happen to them. Luckily, it never takes joy in this – such as when Aimee is sexually assaulted on a bus and develops PTSD as a result. But by and large, characters respond to these events in the cleanest and most socially-acceptable way possible. Either as an ill-judged attempt to continue the ‘sex positivity’ angle or simply to avoid controversy, rarely does Sex Education contain much grit despite being a teen comedy-drama focusing on sex. Aimee’s reaction to her assault doesn’t get ugly – as these things typically do in reality. We’re told that she’s avoiding sex with her boyfriend, but we’re never shown this in any meaningful sense. We’re told it’s impacting their relationship, but there isn’t a single scene in the whole season which shows us that.
Sex Education constantly does this. It shies away from actually showing us – the audience – the ups and downs of sex. It’s completely unengaging as drama and was enough to shatter my immersion in the fictional world being presented to me. More often than not, between various characters coming to terms with their sexuality, characters struggling with infertility or honest-to-God narcotics addictions, I could only ever see the writers behind the show straining to avoid any controversial or confrontational moments of drama. That method feels wrong, to me. It’s a show about sex education. You only learn by making mistakes, after all.
Comparable shows, such as Skins, didn’t shy away from these things. It’s fair to criticise that series on any number of levels, not least its tendency to glorify these terrible occurrences, but at least it accepted that they happen and that they suck. Sex Education doesn’t, and fictionalised world it presents is devoid of any meaningful conflict, internal or external. Characters will just tell us how they feel, instead of acting out their internal emotions and, as a result, causing conflict. During seasons two and three, characters will act with no internal motivation. There’s rarely a moment where people treat someone else badly through any ill-will or misguided viewpoint. It plays out more like an issue drama than an actual drama.
This is an approach I like to call the ‘Riverdale Technique’. In that show, despite the myriad of strange and horrible things that take place, we’re only ever told about them. Characters will more often than not act in accordance with some code as opposed to as people, and anything terrible or interesting is happening off-screen. The same happens in Sex Education. To me, this issue comes from two places. First of all, despite trying to ‘tackle issues’ that young people care about, there is an insistence on having characters react in the ways that therapists (or, more likely, influencers) would want them to, not how any real person would.
Because, as far as I can tell, that’s less likely to cause controversy online. There’s an important difference between simply writing about bad events and glorifying those bad events.
Secondly, writing conflict and drama is too much work. Nothing of worth or meaning is established within scenes and they all invariably end with the implication that the real drama will happen before we see these characters next – and then you’re distracted by other characters discussing a separate plot, as opposed to doing anything that’s relevant to them. Storylines are always being kicked down the road in order to fill time before something real happens in the finale.
Season three jumps the shark a fair amount, too. There’s a new headteacher, and she quickly begins changing the school from the horny free-for-all it was before to a cold and efficient academy. At times, this is done effectively – she has lines painted along the floor to show that corridors should be single-file.
But then this occurs.
She drags three secondary characters onstage and submits them to some ritual humiliation, wearing signs that shame them for ‘bad behaviour’. It’s laughable. It’s something that would feel more at home in HBO’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, not a show that is – may I remind you – ostensibly meant to be about the sex lives of teenagers.
The sex education aspect of Sex Education disappears during season two, and by the next instalment, it’s practically forgotten about as the initial concept of the show. Otis and Maeve are forced to dance around each other romantically until the end of season three, when Maeve decides to move to America to study. It’s all so blatantly playing for time. I understand that the demands of an ongoing series require this to an extent, but there is nothing interesting about characters we know will end up together avoiding each other for three whole seasons of a show. Depending on how much executive interfering there is on the writers’ room, there is no excuse for stringing the audience along this much. Maeve and Otis could’ve very easily gotten together in season two, and season three could’ve dealt with their inevitable falling out that will most likely loom over the upcoming season four.
Sex Education is available for streaming on Netflix.