Reviews · TV

‘Sex Education’ is Back and Better than Ever

The latest season of the empowering, entertaining series shows Moordale students fighting to let their freak flags fly.
Sex Education Season
By  · Published on September 15th, 2021

Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Season 3 of Sex Education.

Season 3 of Sex Education starts off with a bang. Or, more accurately, with several bangs. The latest episodes kick off with a jubilant, aerobic, and diverse montage of sex that crescendos into a parade of satisfied o-faces. Like the rest of the Netflix series, it’s a sequence that’s radically non-judgemental. It shows, for example, a virtual reality masturbation session alongside a scene of intergalactic lesbian roleplay. The teachers have sex. The parents have sex. Above all else, the teenage students at the center of the show have sex.

It’s a clever narrative choice, clearly meant to update viewers on the comings-and-goings of their favorite characters after a summer away. But it’s also a perfect wink at our quasi-Puritan current pop cultural landscape. A cold open that essentially looks in the eyes of those who bemoan the very existence of sex scenes and says, with unashamed joy, “F**k that.”

This bold montage captures the precise sort of positive rebellious streak that makes Sex Education such an entertaining and groundbreaking TV series. It pays more than lip service to the concept of sex education. Series writers take care to create authentic characters whose experiences are myriad and unique, and to treat each of them with humane empathy. No one series can undo generations of stereotypes and blind spots within the coming-of-age sub-genre, but that won’t stop Sex Education from trying.

The original premise involves a secret Charlie Bartlett-like sex therapy clinic being run out of an abandoned bathroom at Moordale Secondary School. Otis (Asa Butterfield) doles out advice based on the encyclopedic knowledge of sex and relationships he’s absorbed from his mother, the professional sex therapist Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson).

By Season 3 of Sex Education, Otis has called it quits on the clinic after a falling out with his partner-in-crime and crush, Maeve (Emma Mackey). Despite the central conceit being all but dissolved, though, the show is better than ever.

Moordale as a whole is experiencing a major heel turn when the third season begins. After a wave of Otis-and-Maeve-inspired sex-positivity culminated in Season 2’s super-sensual school play, we learn that “the sex school” came under intense press scrutiny. In the premiere, a new headteacher, Hope (Jemima Kirke), is brought in to straighten out the student body and get the school “back on track.” Kirke is deviously perfect in this role.

Hope initially seems like the injection of fresh blood the school needs, but her coolness quickly curdles into cruelty. Her sinister intentions creep in under the cover of constructive language, and soon quirky Scandinavian models of success give way to abstinence-only education and denials of students’ lived experiences. Sex Education has always pulled off an ambitious mix of realism and the type of heightened drama that high school’s cringiest moments are made of.

Hope is perhaps the show’s most disturbingly well-written character to date. She’s an educator who’s more than willing to terrorize students in the name of building character, like a young Professor Umbridge — if Umbridge were imbued with J.K. Rowling’s own dangerous ideologies.

Of course, the students of Moordale have by now been taught to let their freak flags fly, so they won’t go down without a fight. There are plenty of kids to root for, too. The new season deepens our understanding of the show’s main cast while seamlessly introducing even more characters. Namely, there’s Cal (Dua Saleh), a non-binary skateboarder who becomes fast friends with Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling).

While Season 2 clumsily brought in new characters such as Rahim (Sami Outalbali) and Isaac (George Robinson) within the context of cheap relationship conflicts, Season 3 of Sex Education thankfully rewrites both as empathetic, three-dimensional people.

This is what makes the TV series so refreshing. It demolishes our preconceived notions, not only about sex but about high school hierarchies and relationship competition. Nearly all of Otis’ and Jean’s work depends on helping clients realize that “normal” just isn’t a thing, inside the bedroom and out.

By Season 3 of Sex Education, most of the student body has internalized this lesson, and the results are joyfully subversive. Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) bakes vulva cupcakes. The choir sings an enthusiastic rendition of Peaches’ “F**k The Pain Away.” Students fight to save a mural of genital-themed graffiti on campus. Conflicts still arise, of course, but the series envisions a generation that’s empowered by knowledge and confidence that can’t be taken away. It’s a fantastic, often hilarious thing to behold.

Sex Education is riding a high, and thoughtful writers aren’t the only reason. The third season also includes some of Sex Education’s best directing to date. Music choices that feel at once familiar and inspired accompany scenes in which cameras twirl and pan to reflect the vibrant energy of the moment.

The series is well-cast as a whole, but Ncuti Gatwa is in a league of his own as Otis’ best friend, Eric. Whether he’s vogueing to Todrick Hall songs in his room or gossiping with Otis in the school hallway, Eric’s presence is ever-captivating. Often, the most striking visual and musical moments center on him, letting Gatwa shine in the role.

When I think of what Sex Education means, I think of a Season 3 scene featuring a different gay character, Anwar (Chaneil Kular). At a clinic, he tells a healthcare worker that every movie about sexually active gay people he’s ever seen ends with a character dying of AIDS. The clinic employee gives him updated information about HIV and safe sex for gay men. That’s the entire scene. It’s a positive moment based on simple, judgment-free communication of information.

Misinformation and shame are perpetually on this series’ mind, but so is fact-based optimism. Sex Education itself works hard to be the real-life solution to Rahim’s problem. It’s a show that ensures that no one who sees it will ever grow up with pervasive, harmful misconceptions about their bodies and lives. The titular subject of Sex Education doesn’t just change the students of Moordale for the better; it helps change us, as viewers, too.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)