Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review.
One thing that both TV and film struggle with in equal measure is creating believable and relatable stories about the teenage experience. Quite simply, the issue is that filmmakers base it all off their own adolescence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are qualified to analyse teenagers in the here and now. However, every generation has one or two artists who seem to capture the zeitgeist. John Hughes gave us The Breakfast Club (1985), Mark Waters and Tina Fey gave us Mean Girls (2004) and Bo Burnham gave us Eighth Grade (2018). Now we have Laurie Nunn, who continues to grace our TV screens with the wonderfully astute Sex Education, Season Three (2021).
Season Three picks up not long after Otis Milburn’s (Asa Butterfield) heartfelt phone message to Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) was deleted by Otis’ romantic rival, Isaac Goodwin (George Robinson). As a result, Maeve and Otis have grown apart, thinking that their friendship and potential love for each other has faded. Otis has been continuing a casual relationship with the school’s queen bee, Ruby Matthews (Mimi Keene), while Eric Effiong’s (Ncuti Gatwa) relationship with his former bully, Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) has blossomed. Meanwhile, last season’s bizarre sex play has gotten Moordale secondary some incredibly bad press, prompting the appointment of the brand new head teacher, Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke). Hope intends to shake things up at Moordale, but it’s possible things may be shaken a bit too much.
For fans of the show, Sex Education’s return partly feels like a long awaited party. There was a worry the extended break would dull the show’s signature blend of humour, irreverence and humanity, but thankfully that’s not the case. If anything, the show has developed a life of its own beyond the original premise, addressing things even grander than teenage sexual awakenings. The show has always understood the connection between emotional growth, psychological awareness and sexual discovery, but it seems the latter points have taken the forefront this time around. This has prevented the show from feeling stagnant, which is definitely necessary when telling a story about the ever changing era of teenage-hood.
With that in mind, the show continues to double as the most nuanced (and detailed) sex ed class ever made. As usual, there’s always that chance things could veer into the grotesque, but that’s also kind of the point. The idea is to break down barriers, subvert misrepresented taboos and normalise things we’ve been too afraid to address openly. Amazingly, the show doesn’t just stop at the teenage analysis, as it has plenty of light to shed on the intricacies of adulthood. This aspect is particularly prevalent, as the age gap between the teenage characters and adult characters is slowly beginning to shrink.
Despite there being plenty of weighty themes to chew on, you can definitely trust that Sex Education Season Three, is still as sidesplittingly funny as it has always been. We are treated to some of the show’s best examples of gross-out gags, cringe worthy moments, fast-paced wit and jaw-dropping antics. The show has always had an uncanny ability to top the topper, but this season comes up with some laugh out loud moments that would make Ernst Lubitsch blush. Essentially, the humorous scenarios build in tension for brilliantly uncomfortable stretches of time, making the payoffs incredibly satisfying.
While in many ways the show has never been better, there is of course a minor drawback to go along with all the positive praise. In this case, it’s that the heightened narrative drama has forced the show to skew into some unbelievable plot threads. Granted, the show deals with characters who are naturally inclined to make ill-informed decisions, but there’s one too many major story beats which definitely wouldn’t fly in any realistic scenario. This wouldn’t be an issue if the show was more cartoony, but Sex Education has often steered away from melodrama. Some instances which are meant to display certain actions as ‘out of touch’, are so extreme that it’s hard to believe anyone actually going along with them, no matter how conservative their values are. Therefore, the moments in which it unrealistically up the stakes don’t fully work, as it’s hard to believe any of these characters wouldn’t come up with better solutions.
That being said, any minor kinks in the plotting are mostly smoothed over by the incredibly rich roster of characters. Otis and Maeve may very well be our series leads, but everyone from Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling) to Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) are given multiple dimensions. Most impressively, the show even gives redemption to previously antagonistic characters like Ruby Matthews, Adam Groff and Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie), all of whom climb to the top of our sympathies. Even characters that are positioned as this season’s villains are given understandable and human motivations for their actions, thus elevating the show’s drama above petty good vs evil digressions. This shows that Laurie Nunn and the writing team have a tremendous amount of respect for their viewers, trusting them enough to be equally fair to all the characters, whether likeable or not. Not to mention the performances across the board, to which there is absolutely no weak link.
The best way to describe the show is that it’s the actually good version Skins (2007 – 2013). It may be the turbulent teenage experience, but its characters aren’t thin, the themes aren’t muddled, the tone isn’t dour, the realism isn’t nonexistent and the stories aren’t nonsense. If the memory of Skins were to be completely erased by the relevance of Sex Education, we would be in a far grander place. The best thing you can say about Sex Education is that it actually may help change social norms for the better, instead of making everything out to be a miserable nightmare.
Best way to watch it: While cuddling.