Is there a more empathetic show on television than the British teen comedy-drama Sex Education? Unlikely, writes Sam Brooks.
If you had a Netflix subscription last January, chances are you’re one of the reportedly 40 million people who watched Sex Education, the gentle British show about a teenager who gives sex advice but – whoa-oh – is himself a virgin. It could’ve become one of many Netflix Originals to clog up the ‘Recently Added’ row on the app, but instead it became a genuine hit, the kind that comes from enthusiasm and love rather than a publicity push and big names. People responded to the show’s uncommon warmth, and told other people to watch it. Forty million of them did. So it was no surprise when the show was renewed for a second season just a few weeks after its debut.
One of the show’s biggest assets was that it didn’t feel like anything else around; the closest comparison would be if Wes Anderson was a little bit more grounded in naturalism or Greta Gerwig was a touch more avant-garde. Half of its success was down to the concept: the show revolved around a teenager named Otis (Asa Butterfield) who sets up a sex advice service for his peers, utilising wisdom gleaned from his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson), a professional sex therapist.
The other half came from a near flawless execution of that concept. The show was able to address sex, sexuality and all the baggage that comes with both in a way that dove into complexities instead of simplifying them. It balanced bluntness with gentleness, and darkness with humour. It approached every member of its large cast with humanity. It’s the kind of show where someone can say, “I can, under no circumstances, shit myself” and it’s not just a laugh line but an honest revelation of someone’s truth. And is there any truth more universal than not wanting to shit yourself?
The second season takes what worked in the first season and blows it up a few sizes. One of the most rewarding relationships on television last year was the uneasy connection between Otis and Maeve (Emma Mackay) as they embarked on their ad-hoc sex clinic business as two people who were savvy in some ways, but stunted in others. The show captured the awkwardness that develops between two people who have a chemistry, but can’t get past their own emotional roadblocks to actually activate it. Their relationship continues to develop this season, as Maeve starts to see a future beyond the caravan park she’d resigned herself to, Otis embarks on his first romantic relationship, and they both have to start addressing the baggage they’ve so far ignored.
But where the show’s expanded size and scope is most obvious is in the cast, which is noticeably bigger this season. The first season was about Otis helping his fellow high schoolers with their sex issues, and while the second season still has Otis as a focal point, he more often than not takes a backseat to Maeve and other characters’ stories. Not only are there new characters like Isaac (George Robinson), Maeve’s snarky new neighbour, and Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu), a terse academic overachiever, but the show digs into the stories of characters from the first season, like the sexually-confused Adam (Connor Swinnells) and Maeve’s on and off boyfriend Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling).
This is best seen in Maeve’s friend Aimee (Aimee Lou Woods). Previously little more than comic relief, she has a plot this season dealing with sexual assault that doesn’t betray the character’s personality, but complicates what made her funny in season one: a perkiness that occasionally veers towards shallowness. Sex Education has a surprisingly deep bench of characters for a comedy, and this season it uses them to explore subjects as disparate as anal sex, adoption, various fetishes and what it’s like to be the child of an addict.
Beyond the sprawl, and the show’s gentle but all-encompassing approach to sexuality, what is most refreshing about Sex Education is the near-endless amounts of empathy it has for its characters. Every one of them, and they number well into the teens, is approached with humanity and understanding. Even characters we aren’t necessarily meant to like are treated with care – and it’s no surprise that in the world of Sex Education, where understanding is rewarded with love more often than not, the worst characters are the older men, clinging to repression and patriarchy.
The cast reward the care that Sex Education has for its characters tenfold; this is one of the most best young casts on TV. Butterfield and Mackay remain excellent, Mackay in particular nailing the moments when Maeve forces herself to push down the hurt and disappointment that have marked her life; there’s a moment she does this in the final episode that is one of the most crushing things I’ve seen on television recently. The brilliance is spread evenly around the cast, whether it’s George Robinson’s spritely thorniness as Isaac or Connor Swinnell finding aching sadness within the near-mute Adam. Everybody matches the depth of the writing and elevates it.
But it’s Gillian Anderson who continues to give one of the finest and, suprisingly, least-recognised performances on television. On paper, the preternaturally chill, surprisingly open and frank sex therapist could be a hack joke, but neither the show nor Anderson settle for flattening Jean’s complexities. Among the more welcome developments in the second season is how much space Jean is given to be a full-bodied character. Armed with a brilliant, slightly stagey vocal choice, Anderson rises to the challenge. We get to see Jean be immature, get angry, feel desire, run the full gamut – she’s afforded just as much grace and understanding as any of the teenage cast. Anderson has been quietly turning in great performances for the past 25 years, and it’s so satisfying to now see her step into a character that lets her have a bit of fun.
One criticism: the trade-off for Sex Education‘s sprawl, and its gentleness, is a lack of narrative momentum. Sex Education suffers from the bloat that mars a lot of Netflix’s hour-long content: the season feels too long even at just eight episodes, and the length of each individual episode hovers around the 50 minute mark. The show is never anything less than pleasant to watch, but at times, the pleasantry can meander into aimlessness. Exploration is admirable, but only when there’s a destination in mind. Sex Education seems to have so many destinations that it can’t quite reach any of them satisfactorily; it brushes up against a few subjects rather than fully engaging with one.
Still, given how fond television is of treating its characters with cruelty, it’s a relief that there’s at least one show out there that is absolutely bursting with care and empathy for everybody onscreen, bit player or regular cast. And, as the world turns and burns with depressing regularity, it’s a pleasure to spend time in a fictional world that’s full of a little bit more love and understanding. Sex Education gives us that world and that time, and if the price is a little bit of messiness in the delivery, it’s one that me, and 40 million people, will happily pay.
The second season of Sex Education is streaming on Netflix now.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.