Illustration by Ben Beechener
Warning: Minor spoilers!
The wait’s over, folks. Sex Education is back. The hotly anticipated third season of the BAFTA-winning comedy-drama premiered Friday 17th keeping us glued to our screens this past weekend as we followed the students of the sauciest secondary school in their latest exploits of sexual discovery and self-empowerment. But something’s different this time around. Moordale has changed. The introduction of a new headteacher, Hope Haddon, played by the brilliantly villainous Jemima Kirke, is significant. Intent on erasing the reputation of “Sex School” (established by the actions of the students in previous seasons) by introducing order, unity and school uniforms, she constantly butts heads with Moordale’s students. This season also saw the introduction of Cal Bowman, a non-binary student from Minneapolis, played by the polymathic actor-singer-songwriter-rapper Dua Saleh, who bonds with our favourite former swim team captain Jackson Marchetti, played by Kedar Williams-Sterling. Despite never previously shying away from tackling the more nuanced, weighty issues posed by the dynamic of a group of students, one might wonder whether a show as whimsical as Sex Ed can carry that nuance into this new season. By the end, however, it’s clear that this show has the ability to tackle these subjects and more. These new additions only contribute to making Season 3 the best season of the show so far, solidifying its place as a bastion of important and progressive programming.
Considering Netflix’s output of teen comedy-dramas in recent years, it’s quite striking to see a show so mature. And not just in the sexual sense, but in the way all of the characters, lifestyles or states of being are so comfortably depicted; Sex Education thrives in the spaces where characters are simply existing how they are. There’s no uncomfortable trauma being depicted for the sake of entertainment, instead these characters exist joyfully, with their many interests and aspects of their personality coming to the forefront. Saleh’s Cal Bowman encapsulates this idea, as although they do face bigotry, misgendering and opposition to their appearance, it is done so in a way that it doesn’t capture their entire personality. Much time is also given to developing their personality and relationship with other characters, like Jackson. There’s an incredibly poignant moment where Cal assists another non-binary student at the school, Layla, to bind their chest properly and safely underneath their uniform. The show highlights the dangers to non-binary people as we see Layla injures themselves in the process of using an unsafe binder. As Layla finds success, the two share a brief moment of joy together, which, as the title of this article suggests, is so important. Whilst it is often necessary to make the general public understand the struggles marginalised people face in society, depicting these moments of joy that they find in their identity is an imperative addition. Presentations of trauma for the sake of entertainment can feel burdensome and stressful for those in real life who similarly identify with these characters.
Another strength that Sex Ed seems to boast is how it plays its ensemble cast to its advantage. The initial show began with Asa Butterfield’s Otis Milburn forming a secret “sex clinic” with classmate Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), having adopted advice from his sex therapist mother Jean, played by the incomparable Gillian Anderson. But as time has gone on, the lens has altered, and we’ve seen different characters weave in and out, interacting with each other in different ways. It’s just as much about these characters than it is about Otis, Maeve and Jean. By doing so, each character highlights a different topic of conversation to be had. A particular standout this season as regards to this, was the surprising focus on Michael Groff, the former headteacher of Moordale sacked after the events of last season, portrayed fantastically by Alistair Petrie. Taking up the main antagonist role in the last two seasons, his character covered different ground this season, as we watched him navigate his next steps after the loss of his job. What was uncovered however, was a deeply nuanced portrayal of toxic masculinity, and the generational trauma that results from it. Michael’s son Adam, with his own subplots and storylines, rarely interacts with his father all season, yet they still manage to effectively show the damage of his father’s actions, and the damage of Michael’s father’s actions on Michael himself. To manage to convert the show’s prime villain into a vehicle of such important, empathetic storytelling is an astonishing feat which demonstrates the fantastic writing at the core of this show. In a time where these problems, now more than ever, affect a large number of men in modern Western society, it is nothing but commendable that a show like Sex Ed would portray this.
All in all, so much more could be said about the different characters’ storylines and what they depict; Otis and Eric’s (Ncuti Gatwa) deeply enjoyable portrayal of non-toxic platonic male friendship, Jean Milburn’s navigation of patriarchal systems and how these affect the relationships she forms, and the demonstration of problematic, non-intersectional white feminism from headteacher Hope Haddon. Each one of these storylines, along with the ones mentioned above, are just as important as each other when giving a full-scoped representation of modern society. It is unequivocally essential for art and media to reflect real life, and all of the trials and tribulations that come with it. And now more than ever, Sex Education does exactly that, culminating in what can only be described as the show’s best season. For all of its whimsy, humour and intentional awkwardness, there is so much profound content to be discovered here.