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
Debuting in 2019, Sex Education quickly became one of the biggest shows for the streaming service based on reports. So, it’s not surprising when it didn’t take long before it returned for its sophomore year in 2020. Chronicling the lives of the students and staff at Moordale Secondary School, the series’ primary focus has always been on its main lead, Otis, and his relationships, particularly with his best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and his crush, Maeve. The trio first got together after deciding to run an underground sex therapy business at school. As the storytelling progressed, each of them started exploring their respective and collective arcs. For Otis, that meant navigating his own sexual issues, not to mention his growing attraction to Maeve.
It’s pointless trying to divide up and second-guess audiences. Just create high-quality television and let us choose for ourselves
Should the BBC be making more programmes specifically targeted at older viewers? Responding to a letter accusing the corporation of taking older viewers for granted, the audience services department (on behalf of senior management) said that, in their opinion, the over-50s actually had varied tastes, so were encouraged to enjoy shows made for a “general audience”.
That wasn’t good enough for DCMS chair Julian Knight, who declared that many people feel “the BBC has left them behind”, while, in contrast, writer Charlie Higson has said that the BBC was “forever tying itself in knots about the ageing demographic of its viewers” and stereotyping them by programming gardening shows and documentaries about tanks. It’s also notable that BBC Three is getting an extra £40 million for its terrestrial reboot, with a schedule “aimed at audiences 16-34”, while BBC Four becomes a repeats channel.
But is the viewing audience really that simply – or starkly – divided? I think it’s eminently more sensible to make programming for that so-called “general audience” rather than fretting about demographic targets or second-guessing audience preferences in such an offhand, even patronising, way.
One of the big hits of lockdown, BBC Three’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, might seem a prime example of “yoof” telly, as a coming-of-age drama centring on two teenagers navigating love, sex, family and education. Yet only 5m of the record 16.2m viewers in its first week were from that 16-34 group; the other two-thirds were older viewers.
And that makes perfect sense. You don’t need to be a teenager right now to be able to understand adolescent experience; we’ve all gone through it. Nor do you need to match the characters’ age in order to appreciate a sensitively crafted, beautifully performed piece of drama. If anything, it might be a more powerful watch with an added wistful nostalgia. Certainly, Rooney’s readership wasn’t confined to young adulthood, even as many labelled her a “millennial” voice.
The same applies to other lockdown favourites, like The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. By November 2020, over 62m households had tuned in to watch the exploits of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, not just those of a similarly tender age. And of the 9m-plus consolidated viewers who enjoyed ITV’s Quiz, about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’s “Coughing Major”, 1.5m were aged 16-34, even though this was based on a scandal that took place before many of them were born.
It just goes to show that you can’t pigeon-hole viewers – and it’s foolish to try. What we really want is quality entertainment, and if it touches on a universal experience or emotion, then of course it will appeal to people of all ages. The best television doesn’t divide us; it unites us. And never have we needed that more than in this past difficult year, with many separated from loved ones or living in isolation. Continue reading →
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal share their thoughts on where their Normal People characters could be today.
It’s safe to say the beginning of lockdown 2020 wouldn’t have been the same without BBC Three’s Normal People. Millions fell in love with Marianne and Connell, as their on-again-off-again romance unfolded on screen. The ending left viewers heartbroken, with Connell heading to New York and Marianne staying in Ireland, and the couple deciding to part ways.
In an interview with Radio Times, the actors who played Marianne and Connell, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, shared their thoughts on where their characters could have ended up.
Edgar-Jones said she had questioned whether Marianne may have found herself in an unlikely situation. “I don’t know, I wonder if Marianne is doing something really out of character like she’s working in Ibiza,” she told the publication. The actor went on to suggest maybe she “gets a job somewhere” and perhaps she “hangs out with Lorraine (Connell’s mum) a bit.”
Mescal also thought his character Connell would be abroad. “I remember we talked about that a huge amount when we were filming. I think Connell is in New York, and as much as he should go, I don’t think he’s well equipped for that territory,” he said.
Despite all the speculation as to where each character may have ended up, Sally Rooney, the author of the original novel, may have already shared all there is to know about their future already. In an essay she wrote for The White Review, Rooney seems to explain what happened to Marianne and Connell after we said goodbye to them last year. While they aren’t together, it does seem like they still have feelings for each other.
Although the series may have come to an end, director Lenny Abrahamson keeps us hopeful as he shared with Radio Times that he’d like to revisit the characters for a future show in 10 years time.
“If my knees are up to it, I would still love to do that,” he says. “I mean, it feels like they’re so real and there’s so much richness that sits there having told that story.” Fingers crossed we get that reunion.