By Sarah Osman
Amid the political point-scoring, Netflix’s Sex Education remains effervescently charming.
Sex Education, now in its third season, has always been a show that kicks at boundaries, so it should surprise no one that the third season starts off with some bangs (literally — the first episode opens with a montage of people engaged in sexual acts). The series has always been risqué, but season three takes it even further. The upside is that this move toward the more explicit comes with heartfelt, humorous and, at times, informative storytelling.
Season three starts with a new school year at Moordale High. Otis (Asa Butterfield) is having casual sex with the most popular girl in school, Ruby (Mimi Keene), while Eric (Ncuti Gatwa, always a standout) and Adam (Connor Swindells) have become an official couple. Meanwhile, trouble is a-brewing at Moordale, fallout from the staging of a raunchy musical — a reimagined version of Romeo and Juliet (complete with tentacles). The original headmaster of Moordale, Adam’s father, Mr. Groff (Alistair Petrie), has been fired, so a new headmaster is brought in, Ms. Hope Haddon, played by Girls’ Jemima Kirke.
It’s fascinating to see Kirke in such a different role, a complete contrast to her free-spirited character in Girls. The actress is downright frightening here; Kirke plays Hope to snarky perfection, pettily micromanaging and sneering with aplomb. At first, she manages to win over the student body with a song and dance routine, but quickly we see that she has troubling plans for the school. Hope is far more focused on building up Moordale’s brand than on what her students and staff actually need. She quickly introduces uniforms as well as a homophobic and abstinence-only sex education course that denies resources to nonbinary students. A powerful political message is being delivered here, one that demands that secondary schools refuse reactionary policies. The ironically named Hope reflects the cultural dangers posed by sexism, transphobia, and homophobia, prejudices that, unfortunately, still run rampant in America’s schools. (The satire could be seen as part of the growing pushback to the demonization of Critical Race Theory, the near ban on abortion in Texas, and the continued lack of proper sex education given to high school students.)
Even worse, Hope pits Head Boy Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) against Head Girl Vivienne (Chinenye Ezeudu). It’s very frustrating to watch Hope attempt to tear apart what had become a moving friendship, one that blossomed over the course of the last season. Hope also instills fear into her teachers, who are now terrified to answer their students questions about their sexuality. Thankfully, a few teachers rebel and recommend that students go to a local health clinic with their concerns — but it’s absurd that would need to be done in the first place. Real life students, trapped in abstinence-only programs, may find it worth tuning into Sex Education because the series will honestly and accurately answer some of their own burning questions about sex and relationships.
Much of what makes Sex Education distinctive as a series drama is its ability to subvert its viewers’ expectations. Ruby was introduced as a stereotypical mean girl, but she turns out to be vulnerable and caring in her relationship with Otis. Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), who started off as Maeve’s rather vapid-brained friend, seeks therapy from Otis’s mother, the enchanting Jean (played by the equally enchanting Gillian Anderson), regarding a sexual assault she experienced in the previous season. The sessions encourage Aimee to embrace who she truly is and she learns to become more independent. Adam, who began as the bully of the series, has become more comfortable with his own sexuality and even pursues additional help to improve his academics. As the episodes go on, each of the characters is becoming increasingly complex, which makes the world of Sex Education more involving. Even Jean, who is now pregnant with her former boyfriend’s child, grows substantially in the third season.
Despite moving into more melodramatic plot realms, Sex Education remains as funny as it was in its first season. There are plenty of amusing moments: Aimee and her boyfriend procure a goat and bring said animal to school; Eric dancing and singing when he learns that he is about to have sex with his boyfriend. Amid the political point-scoring, Sex Education remains effervescently charming, an appeal that will continue, even deepen, with the hoped-for arrival of a fourth season.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman