Minor spoilers for Season 1 ahead.
It’s official: the long-awaited third season of Sex Education will arrive on Netflix later this year. Boasting an impressive rating of 94% on the ever-ruthless Rotten Tomatoes, fans and critics clearly await the release with high hopes and eager anticipation.
The premise of Sex Education is promising. Otis, an awkward teenage wallflower, partners with his rebellious classmate Maeve to open up an amateaur sex therapy clinic in their high school. His certification? Knowledge and expertise picked up from his mother, who is an actual sex therapist. Yet despite all the theoretical knowledge on sex and romance, he struggles to overcome a deep-rooted fear of his own sexuality.
Otis is the show’s crown jewel. Through his character, Sex Education dissects the dilemma faced by a boy who must balance the pressure of feeling like he’s falling behind against the stubborn fact that he is simply not yet ready for sex–a refreshing change from the sex-crazed male archetypes we’re so accustomed to seeing in comedies. It also explores the growing pains experienced by both mother and son during a time when Otis’ view of himself and his relationships are rapidly evolving. Otis manages to capture the half-innocent cringiness of teenage melodrama with consistent authenticity.
Unfortunately, Otis shines among mediocrity. All the other characters are so lazily written that at times they wander into the realm of problematically cliché. For a show as character-driven as Sex Education, this simple flaw is a death sentence.
Maeve is the worst. From her looks to her core, Maeve is the standard diamond-in-the-rough: platinum blonde hair dyed pink, dark eyeliner drawn heavy, drug-addicted mom and runaway dad, dilapidated trailer park home, profoundly intellectual yet constantly underestimated, terrified of vulnerability, and yearning for security.
There’s no denying that many teenagers living in poverty really do find themselves in Maeve’s situation. Oftentimes, however, Maeve’s backstory merely functions to provide a convenient launching pad for the next plot point.
This happens early in the first season. Maeve hooks up with Jackson in the second episode–no strings attached, of course, given her intimacy issues–and has an abortion just one episode later. In between her pregnancy test and her departure from the clinic, the only discussion about the psychological experience comes in the form of a rowdy older woman whose long list of aborted offspring and don’t-give-a-damn attitude are so exaggerated that it turns her into a gross caricature. At the end of the episode, we have no idea what Maeve herself thinks of the abortion. What we do know, though, is that Otis’ last-minute involvement wins Maeve’s trust in him and sets them up for several episodes worth of romantic tension. The abortion is never mentioned again.
The lazy writing goes beyond Maeve. Again and again, Sex Education establishes serious conflicts that it then resolves using unbelievably simplistic solutions. All it takes for Eric to get over the trauma of being physically attacked by homophobes, apparently, is a thirty-second roadside conversation with an older gay man. When an anonymous blackmailer spreads a picture of Ruby’s vagina around the entire school, the social and emotional repercussions dissipate entirely after a handful of girls stood up during morning assembly and declared in front of the whole school, “It’s my vagina!” While the audience is responsible for suspending their disbelief, a show grounded in reality is responsible for creating situations that give the audience sufficient reason to do so. Sex Education fails miserably here. The show attempts to take a progressive stance on a myriad of social issues, but the characters lack sufficient nuance for its efforts to be any more than half-baked.
Nonetheless, Sex Education dedicates its narrative to openly queer relationships and middle-aged dating more substantially and intentionally than teenage television ever has before. In these respects, the first two seasons of the show strike up some sparks of brilliance. Hopefully, Season Three will finally fan these sparks into flames.