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‘Sex Education’ season 2: Less insightful but just as spunky

Though much of the show’s lovely weirdness has been replaced by clichéd logic, this remains a smart, fun and tender series

Mimi Keene plays Ruby, the most popular girl in high school, in ‘Sex Education’.
Mimi Keene plays Ruby, the most popular girl in high school, in ‘Sex Education’.

Comedies set in high school measure the world through cliques. The cool, the athletic, the nerdy, the dull…. Everyone is a type, and some entry-level anthropology is essential to navigating these odd, unpredictable and frequently cruel waters. However, as we learn from shows like the affectionate British series Sex Education, first impressions are never accurate. On closer examination, the most popular girl on campus is also a scared youngster, sad about her father’s battles with multiple sclerosis, not to mention the unacceptable fact that her eyebrows happen to be uneven on the evening of a party.

When Sex Education first appeared on Netflix last year, it was an unexpected delight. It was a series where the great Gillian Anderson strode around in pantsuits talking about vaginas while her repressed son charged money for giving sex advice to his classmates. There was humour, there was romance and there was an alarming, but ultimately inevitable, amount of kink—the young really are curious enough to try anything. More than anything, though, the show demonstrated genuine empathy and insight, taking its time over 10 episodes to display affection for those we might not have liked at first glance.

A second season of the show arrived on 17 January, and while characters, charm and good-natured snogging escapades are all in place, this time nearly everyone appears to be part of a love triangle. Much of the show’s lovely weirdness has been replaced by clichéd logic, and there is disappointingly little consistency in the way characters behave: The season opens, for instance, with young protagonist Otis uncontrollably aroused by everything from Brie cheese to corduroy trousers, but this dilemma is dismissed all too conveniently by the end of the first episode.

Creator Laurie Nunn also appears compelled to keep shoving her great characters together, which is presumably why the bright English teacher Ms Sands ends up entangled with a moron. This is a real shame, for we expect less television-y behaviour here, and this need to pair everyone up goes against the “stay weird, stay wonderful" spirit of the show. Unlike the first season, this time the characters who are by themselves, distanced from relationships, are presented as outliers.

Still, those of us who loved Season 1 are along for the ride, and this is still a smart and fun and tender series. Few shows can provide the line—and the observation—that “come is kind of like a penis having a sneeze". The words are frank, the sexuality fluid and some of the storylines fearless, like one particularly compelling arc about sexual assault that is shrugged off by the victim until it isn’t. Later, a teacher gives girls in detention a cunning assignment to discover common ground between them. This, the teacher knows, is near impossible in a group of young people striving to distinguish themselves from their peers. As Sex Education points out, these disparate independent young women have nothing in common—nearly nothing.

These children trying simultaneously to fit in and stand out are extraordinarily well cast. Aimee Lou Wood is superb as the oblivious Aimee, crying over more than her ruined jeans without knowing it; Kedar Williams-Stirling’s Jackson is even better this season as an ace swimmer who doesn’t want to swim; Mimi Keene is perfect as the popular Ruby, who refuses to acknowledge that a pharmacist may not know who she is; and Chinenye Ezeudu is great as the smartest student in school who has decided to save friendships for university—and yet wilts bashfully when spoken to by the resident Rubik’s Cube champion.

The three youngsters in the lead roles aren’t written as well. Asa Butterworth, who is 22 but could pass for 15, is the tall and tentative Otis, the “sex kid" dispensing advice in school, but he behaves uncharacteristically unkind and insensitive throughout the season—something he and the audience both struggle with. Emma Mackey’s breakout cool girl Maeve Wiley still bites back her smile, but now, with darker hair to go with a grimmer storyline, is given too little to celebrate. And finally, there’s Ncuti Gatwa as the flamboyant and conflicted Eric who sits unfamiliarly atop one of this year’s love triangles, which is grand, but more than a few times this season, wilfully appears to be shoving his best friend Otis in harm’s way.

A show about therapy must get Freudian at some point, and Sex Education seems to blame/credit all our wonkiness on our parents. There are toxic fathers, abusive mothers, bullying fathers, indiscreet mothers—all conjured up and emphasized to explain away young issues and budding fetishes. Parents are actually the primary example of first impressions gone wrong. We wake to them as all-powerful gods who know exactly what to do, and grow up into the realization that they are flawed and foolish and flaky: just like us, which is rather a long way to fall. I find it fantastic that teenagers now are growing up with inquisitive, non-judgemental shows like Big Mouth and Sex Education to open up their world view, better perhaps than mom and dad could. “Mommy’s alright, daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird," as 1970s rockers Cheap Trick sang in Surrender. Let Netflix raise the kids.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter: @rajasen

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