Otis Milburn, the virgin son of a sex therapist, opens up a sex clinic at his high school to educate his peers on how to please each other in the bedroom. How did this get out of the writer’s room? Despite its zany concept, Netflix’s Sex Education boasts critical acclaim, over 40 million viewers, and three seasons, with a fourth one on the way.
The show’s newest season dropped on September 17th, and lives up to the name if nothing else. Moordale Secondary School has a new principal dedicated to wiping away its reputation as the “Sex School,” though its students are as raunchy as ever. Even in the absence of Otis Milburn’s sex clinic, the main characters find ways to hammer in on-the-nose messages about safe sex, communication, and intimacy. At one point, the teenagers directly critique their school-sponsored Sex & Relationship Education (SRE) course, explaining to the adult administration the flaws of abstinence-only education. One friend of mine went so far as to call the third season’s scenarios “contrived,” and I’m inclined to agree. Then again, the show is hardly known for its subtle messaging. At the end of the day, viewers will accept the occasional lecture on sexual health, so long as they’re entertained.
I think it would be hard to argue that Season 3 isn’t entertaining, but it often comes at the expense of depth. The previous seasons endeared viewers with a large cast of characters, and the third season tacks on two new main characters: Hope, the “hip” young head teacher, and Cal, a non-binary student who unwillingly upsets the norms of Moordale. The show tries to update viewers on each ensemble member almost every episode, leaving the audience with several odd interactions that ultimately lead to very little.
This is most evident in the relationship between Lily and Ola. During one of the early episodes, Lily sends Ola a picture of a crop circle. There is no further mention of the crop circle for the rest of the episode. Several episodes after that, they have a discussion about the impact that Lily’s alien obsession has on their relationship. In the same vein, Rahim gets one-off lines for the first four episodes but receives no meaningful dialogue until the fifth episode. It’s almost as if the writers wrote independent scenes and randomly distributed them to assure superfans that their faves were still in the show.
Ultimately, however, the show centers on Otis, well-versed in female anatomy, skilled at solving other people’s relationship problems, but clueless about how to actually treat a woman. After two seasons of providing advice without any experience, Otis finds himself in a relationship—though it’s with Ruby, not Maeve, after his heartfelt voicemail was deleted by a romantic rival. You won’t forget it, either. In the first episode, you will hear Otis say, “I’m having casual sex with the most popular girl in school” just about a million times, reminding us that he is, in fact, a teenage boy and not a professional sex counselor. But despite his magical ability to heal everyone else’s romances, he somehow breaks the hearts of Ruby, Maeve, Eric, and just about anyone else who decides to depend on him, over and over again. Main characters are supposed to be flawed, but do they have to make us bury our heads into our pillows until the show is over?
A few other character relationships distinguish Season 3 from its predecessors. Season 2 was very successful in building up a relationship between nerdy Vivienne and jock head boy Jackson Marchetti. When the new principal swoops in, she immediately reveals her biases against Jackson, assuming that Adam was the head boy rather than him. Though no student is required to rebel against an authority figure, Jackson’s defiance of Hope’s stringent rules and poorly concealed microaggressions contrasts starkly with Vivienne’s deference, making a growing fan favorite difficult to like.
Another point of interest is Eric and Adam. Sex Education is hardly the first show to employ the “homophobic bully to gay admirer” trope, but one can only hope that cliché will be less frequent in the future. Nevertheless, the show gives the pair some heartwarming scenes, including when Eric does Adam’s make-up and Adam remarks that he looks “quite pretty.” Yet, for the sake of drama, the show’s writers cannot let this couple find rest, subjecting them to homophobia, retroactive jealousy, and bouts of mutual frustration. That’s a constant theme in the third season—obstacles just for the sake of amusement.
Aside from the main pairings and friendships, the season grapples with topics related to fertility, grief, and misfortune through its adult characters. Though fans love Jean Milburn, Otis’s mother, at some points I began to question why so much time in a teen drama was spent on an adult pregnancy.
Overall, Season 3 was a bit of a mess, cluttered with characters and relationships and perhaps too many subplots, but fans of prior seasons will regret missing out on a season that ultimately upholds the humor and charm that Sex Education fans have grown to love.