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.