In the first episode of the new season of “Sex Education,” Otis Milburn can’t stop masturbating. He does it in the shower, the school bathroom, the woods, even the front seat of his mother’s car — well, at least until she walks up and knocks on the window.
This new habit marks a big change from the Otis, played by Asa Butterfield, that was introduced in the Netflix original’s first season. In season one, he’s a slightly dorky high school junior who is so traumatized by accidentally catching his father right in the middle of an affair that he can’t even think about his own genitals without edging into panic. Ironically, both of Otis’ now-divorced parents are sex therapists, and despite his own dysfunction, he realizes he’s picked up a lot skills related to the family business. With the help of Maeve, a street-smart and book-smart outcast played by Emma Mackey, Otis launches a thriving start-up offering sex advice to his high school peers. While the debut season focuses on the therapy business and the will-they-won’t-they tensions between its two founders, it also introduced its audience to a cast of secondary characters that are dazzlingly and painfully human: the gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) who is anything but a flat stereotype; tortured jock Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling); horny sci-fi nerd Lily (Tanya Reynolds), among others. The diversity of experience and emotion displayed by its characters was always the show’s greatest strength, and the second season smartly relieves some of its focus on Otis and gives more space to a multiplying number of storylines. And as the show dives into the lives of all its characters, it turns out that everyone has something in common: they’re all thinking about S-E-X.
“Sex Education” is sensitive and astute in its portrayals of the sex lives of adolescents, mining these encounters for both hilarity and humanity. Sex is shown as being sometimes awkward, sometimes scary, sometimes touching and often many of those things at once. Especially noteworthy is the representation of nearly every letter in the acronym LGBTQ. Not only does the show depict a diversity of sexualities, but even more remarkably, it expresses a diversity of ways in which those identities are embodied. Queer characters get to be the center of their own teenage love stories, all while living the reality that there are as many ways to be queer as there are queer people. Along with sexuality, “Sex Education” tackles plot lines related to emergency contraceptives, consent and sexual harassment in its most banal yet devastating forms, all without ever veering into a preachy or condescending tone. The results are raw and funny and unbelievably real.
The second season maintains this realism while keeping with the almost magical aesthetic established from the show’s pilot. The setting strikes a balance between specificity and universality; while the show’s world is a cohesive universe of lush, almost utopian beauty, it’s not a place that could be pointed to on any map, and it could very well be a just a more stylized version of anyone’s hometown. Although the show is ostensibly British, the character’s nationality is really only indicated by their accents and the very English way they emphasize both syllables of the word “condom.” The high school hallways and the drama they stage can easily be seen as a legacy of John Hughes-era, all-American teenage hits. The costuming features tastefully mixed patterns and vintage-inspired style, which, coupled with the throwback soundtrack, contributes a sense of timelessness. Perhaps this is a reminder that teenagers have been having sex for as long as the concept of teenagers has existed, even though TV has only just been able to tell these stories in all their awkward glory. There is also a conspicuous lack of technology. While the characters communicate over text and do their school work on laptops, the modern force of social media is nowhere to be seen. In nearly every other sense, “Sex Education” aces its representation of contemporary teenage life, but the absence of social media ignores the potent influence that these new modes of communication hold over the lives and selfhoods of young people.
While sex is the starting point for the show’s humor and plot, its stories are never really just about intercourse. The teenage identity and the teenage ego are always intertwined, and sexuality serves as the particular vulnerability through which the most essential, most complicated elements of adolescent life can be accessed. At its best, “Sex Education” uses this vulnerability to crack open the lives of its characters, revealing the messiness and heartbreak and joy that lies beneath. Sex is not a totalizing force; it exists alongside the broken families, healing families, strained friendships, and existential fears that make up teenage life. As Otis’s mom tells a girl who believes she might be damaged because she harbors no sexual attraction, “Sex doesn’t make us whole, so how can you be broken?” Even after the season finale, this line kept running through my mind. If not for its hilarious script or beautiful storylines or excellent performances, “Sex Education” should be viewed as a reminder to yourself or the teenager that you may once have been that you are not broken. At least once per episode, I found myself thinking, “Wow, if only someone had told me that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.” And I am certain that in this feeling, I am not alone.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | firstname.lastname@example.org