The Sly Subversion of Sex Education

With its second season, the joyfully eccentric, inventively raunchy Netflix series cements itself as a different sort of teen comedy.

Otis and Eric in a scene from "Sex Education"

Late in the second season of Netflix’s Sex Education comes a scene familiar from multiple teen movies: the ritualistic dissemination of a person’s private notebook, weaponized to cause maximum chaos. You might remember this exact scenario from Mean Girls, when Regina George papered her high school with xeroxed pages of the same Burn Book she’d helped create, sparking a fracas of hysteria and recrimination. Or from the end of Cruel Intentions, when a journal is handed out in bound copies at Kathryn Merteuil’s brother’s funeral, sealing her downfall. The setup is enough of a trope to feel hackneyed, until you realize how Sex Education is subverting it. The person doling out secrets in hope of causing chaos isn’t a teenage girl looking for revenge, but a middle-aged man grasping at the last vestiges of his waning power.

When Sex Education debuted early in 2019, it felt like a delightfully earnest (and anglicized) patchwork of teen classics: the raunch comedy of American Pie, the small-town romanticism of Stranger Things, and the British oddball kids of Skins and The End of the F***ing World, with the sweet sex-positivity of Big Mouth thrown in for good measure. The show seems to exist in a parallel universe that’s both our own (there are cellphones and STI outbreaks and horny teenagers) and entirely alien (no one ever goes on social media, every store in the mall is a small business, the action takes place in an idyllic English community where it never, ever rains).

But as brazenly as Laurie Nunn’s series pulls stock characters and staple story lines from existing works, it also upends them, tearing down their hierarchical paradigms in the process. In Sex Education, adults are just as priapic, clueless, and unable to communicate as teenagers are. The most effortlessly popular kid in school is heavily medicated and prone to episodes of self-harm. A Breakfast Club–style detention crew, rather than fostering amorous connections, becomes a place where feuding teenage girls can process their shared history of sexual harassment and help one another recover from trauma.

If this all sounds hopelessly high-minded, please note that the show still leans on delightful sweetness and outrageous filth in equal measure, and that the balance of the two remains as winning as ever. In its first season, Sex Education detailed how Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), the nerdy, virginal son of a spectacularly glamorous sex therapist (Gillian Anderson), used the expertise he’d internalized at home to become an unofficial counselor to his high school of horny, oblivious peers, despite his own sexual dysfunction. (“Look around you,” his friend Eric—played by Ncuti Gatwa—says in the first episode. “Everybody’s either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging, and you can’t even jack your own beanstalk.”)

Season 2, out this month, minimizes the perverted–Nancy Drew conceit of having Otis be an amateur teenage sex therapist, largely because the show doesn’t need it anymore. Sex underpins the action, whether or not Otis is offering heartfelt advice from a disused building on campus. The opening scene of the new season is a montage of erections, all Otis’s, as he grapples (literally) with his newfound enthusiasm for masturbation. Anderson’s Jean is still enjoying an affair with her Scandinavian plumber, Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt), while gliding through life with glacial poise and an impeccable array of tailored jumpsuits. Eric is being romantically pursued by the school’s newest student, a smoking hot, sexually urbane French arrival named Rahim (Sami Outalbali). And the school itself is in the midst of a chlamydia outbreak, which leaves students desperate for “professional” help from Otis and the inscrutable Maeve (Emma Mackey).

Sex Education’s defining characteristic is its ability to find a balance between gleeful gross-out comedy and sex-positive pathos. The message the show preaches, over and over, isn’t that sex is good or bad—it’s unequivocally accepted as a thing that people enjoy for primal and emotional reasons. The series unpacks how, in real life and particularly in popular culture, sex tends to be portrayed as something that’s given or taken, a kind of currency, not a mutual accord. Sex Education isn’t flashily cynical about The Way Teenagers Live Today, à la Euphoria, or absurdly heightened in its dramatic stakes, like 13 Reasons Why is. As winkingly irreverent as it can be about inconvenient boners or fruits used as sex aids, it also fully comprehends the pain and humiliation that can be part of the process. And rather than present teenagers as hapless hormone monsters and adults as joyless scolds, Season 2 makes everyone equally bad at asking for what they want and offering it to others in return.

The show’s truncated structure of eight episodes means that some subjects don’t always get the time and space they deserve, and feel instead like issue boxes (asexuality! pansexuality! vaginismus!) being checked, while other story lines drag well past the point of utility. But the way Sex Education continually probes the subliminal messaging of teen movies and TV shows is often surprising, and gratifying. Instead of simply setting up Otis for an encounter with the terrifyingly popular Ruby (Mimi Keene), the series tweaks the cool girl–nerdy boy trope by allowing them a moment of true connection on equal footing. The landscape of the show might be highly artificial, with its verdant pastures, gorgeous 20-something actors, and too-perfect musical cues (“I Touch Myself,” “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”). But its emotional range is always recognizable, and richer than it might seem.