First look TV review: Sex Education Season 3
James R | On 19, Sep 2021
“Sounds a bit racy.” “Well, if by racy, you mean highly researched and completely essential to the health and wellbeing of our children, then, yes.” That’s the sound of Jean Millburn (Gillian Anderson) planning to release her new book in Sex Education Season 3. Netflix’s teen comedy has always excelled because of the way it takes the same care and approach to the issues it explores, but rather than have Jean, the mum of protagonist Otis (Asa Butterfield), lecture condescendingly to the school kids, it lets them educate and support each other.
Season 3 picks up as Otis and will-they-won’t-they friend Maeve (Emma Mackey) have stopped their sex clinic, but into that void has stepped Kyle (Jojo Macari), who gets all his tips and advice from adult movies, which can only result in misinformed young people treating each other poorly.
Not doing himself any favours, meanwhile, is Otis, who is now in a casual fling with Ruby (Mimi Keene), the most popular girl in school – except that what begins as a relatively exercise, as Otis inevitably becomes emotionally attached, turns into a surprisingly sweet match, as both of them embrace the importance of communication honestly with each other. While Season 2 left Otis hanging, after his confession of love for Maeve was scrubbed from her voicemail by her potential new boyfriend Isaac, Season 3 presents us with another possible couple that’s hard not to ship – both Keene and Butterfield are excellent at conveying the insecurities and vulnerabilities of their characters, even as she dresses him to look more fashionable.
It’s that kind of maturity that defines Season 3, as each character becomes more comfortable with who they are and engages more with the world and people around them. Where once this was the Otis and Maeve show, it’s now a fully fledged ensemble piece, with Aimee (Aimee Gibbs), Lily (Tanya Reynolds) and Adam (Connor Swindells) all developing their arcs with nuance – whether that’s coming to terms with assault and finding emotional support in a pet, confronting trauma through therapy or facing down others’ preconceptions as a mature student going back to school – and, at the same time, coming out as gay to those younger than you. The sensational Connor Swindells has to navigate the latter, with the amusing but compassionate support of the always-wonderful Eric (Ncuti Gatwa).
Across the hallway, Cal, a non-binary student, brings a welcome added perspective to the show’s questions about identity and sexuality, which are thoughtfully refracted through the prison of Jackson (Chinenye Ezeudu, another star in the making), whose role as head boy comes under increasing pressure to support the new headteacher’s rules.
Which brings us to the most intriguing subplot of all, as Jemima Kirke struts into the school (clearly having a whale of a time) as Hope Haddon, determined to reform Moordale and restore its reputation. From school uniforms to lines drawn in the hallways to keep pupils controlled and ordered, she speaks like she’s a friend but embodies the kind of authority and institution that wants to dampen freedom and expression – a potentially cartoonish role that she performs with the kind of vague, divisive nature that can often shape wider society when it operates under unconscious biases. (Tragedy and comedy, meanwhile, can be found on the sidelines, as Alastair Petrie’s hopeless but well-meaning former head teacher has to live with his smug older brother – a delightful Jason Isaacs – and then Jim Howick’s hilarious science teacher.)
The other adults in the series are also well defined, with Gillian Anderson getting to explore new territory as Jean finds herself pregnant – and attempts to work out how to co-parent with Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt). The result is a grown-up show in all sense of the word, managing to tackle a diverse range of topics and situations with the urgency and drama of teenage life and the wit and insight of lives experience – and, as the startling opening sequence (edited with the kind of energetic match-cuts found on TikTok) makes clear, it’s a bit racy too.
Sex Education is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.