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Kedar Williams-Stirling, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, and Hannah Waddingham star in Sex Education
Photo: Sam Taylor (Netflix)
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My So-Called Life changed the high school drama game by opening its world to not just include the parents, but make them as compelling as the young people at the center of the show. The series gave Graham and Patty Chase their own lives, wants, needs. That more expansive and complex look at the lives orbiting the lives of teenagers paved the way for a show like Sex Education, where the adults are just as messed up, emotional, dynamic, and horny as the teens. In season two, the series picks up several threads from season one, but also ambitiously dives into a slew of new stories on sexuality and interpersonal relationships with characters of all ages, crackling with humor and heart along the way. In just eight episodes, it does a dazzling amount of character work—a masterclass of writing and performance.

The sex education at Sex Education’s Moordale has no doubt been a broken system, as evidenced by the fact that our young protagonist Otis (Asa Butterfield, who makes the most peculiar and delightful animal sounds whenever his character is flustered) has to step up in season one as a pseudo sex therapist—or “sex kid,” as he has become known—to help his fellow students navigate their feelings and anxieties. Season two continues the work of season one by upending the assumptions that adults and the education system make about teens and their sexualities. Sex Education doesn’t just make its adult characters as horny as its teen characters; it rather boldly asserts that there are no real differences between teen and adult sexuality. It’s all the same sticky mess of feelings, fantasies, desires, self-loathing, passion, and hormones. Jean (Gillian Anderson) has been obsessing over her son Otis’ pubescence—and lacking boundaries along the way—but she too begins a major hormonal change in season two: perimenopause.

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The wealth of stories season two tells in its eight hourlong episodes is overwhelmingly impressive. In most ensemble shows, there are a handful of characters whose arcs feel undercooked or who function more like plot devices in the stories of others instead of standing on their own. Sex Education doesn’t let that happen in its second season, even as it threads in new characters and goes deeper on some of the other characters who exist in season one but who we don’t really know until now. Swim team wonderboy Jackson Marchetti’s (Kedar Williams-Stirling) layers peel back more and more, and the cracks in his moms’ marriage widen. Lily Iglehart (Tanya Reynolds), lover of alien dick, gets more time in the spotlight and is the mastermind behind the finale’s surreal setting: the most bizarre interpretation of Romeo And Juliet ever seen on television and yet perfectly in-voice for this show.

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So many teen dramas challenge tropes like the Bad Girl, the Idiot Jock, the Bookish Nerd, the Bully, but none do so quite as incisively as Sex Education. The writing, brought to life with effusive and grounded performances, is impeccable on a character level but also in the way it weaves those characters’ stories together. A feminist rendering of The Breakfast Club forces six disparate female characters together in detention, where they rather bleakly learn that the one thing that unites them all is the patriarchy. It’s also a natural culmination of Aimee’s (Aimee Lou Wood) arc, who spirals between denial, anxiety, fear, doubt, and grief after a traumatic incident.

Asa Butterfield and Ncuti Gatwa
Photo: Sam Taylor (Netflix)
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The show also takes romance tropes and fucks around with them, yielding more complex and empathetic results than these tropes usually allow for. Otis, Maeve (Emma Mackey), and Ola’s (Patricia Allison) love triangle spreads into a pentagon, and Ola’s sudden new crush throws her into wondering if she might be pansexual. New character Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) enters into what looks like a classic romantic-comedy setup when she asks Jackson to tutor her in the art of flirting so she can finally get with her crush on the quiz team—in exchange for her tutoring Jackson in the art of Shakespeare—but their story together takes a much more interesting turn than the expected, emphasizing the show’s focus on not just sexual relationships but platonic ones as well. Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) also finds himself in a potential love triangle with new and old flames. All three points in the relationship stand on their own as characters but also have distinct and fully felt dynamics with each other. One person’s grand romantic gesture is another’s heartbreak.

The empathy in Sex Education is as visceral as its unrepentant horniness. These characters screw up and screw in believable ways, and the teens and adults alike all feel like deeply real human beings with desires, ambitions, and flaws. Season two packs in an astounding amount of stories that have real heart and skin to them, while also allowing significant space for pansexuality, queer sex and queer desire, bisexuality, and asexuality. It’s sprawling and intimate all at once, like several personal diaries strung together.

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