You don’t have to work in Hollywood to know the old adage: Sex sells.
That provocative promise was obviously behind the marketing of Netflix’s Sex Education, which returns Friday for a second season, but the show made the surprising move in its 2019 debut of stealing our hearts.
This season is no different; once again, the splendid sexual misadventures of Moordale Secondary’s students (and parents, and teachers) are no less entertaining, but constants like family and friendship are what keep the show’s pulse beating strong.
Season 2 catches up with the once-repressed Otis (Asa Butterfield) now gleefully in command of his teen male libido. He’s taking things slow with girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison), especially since Otis’s mother (Gillian Anderson) is officially dating Ola’s father (Mikael Persbrandt). That’s enough stress on a young relationship without the specter of Otis and Maeve’s (Emma Mackey) dormant feelings for each other — but Maeve has enough on her plate with her recovering addict mother (Anne-Marie Duff), while Eric (Ncuti Gatwe) juggles old flame Adam (Connor Swindells) and a distressingly handsome new student (Sami Outalbali).
Throughout all of that, sex and even romance take a backseat to platonic love. The most stirring moments, even as characters experience the treacherous highs and lows of young love, are tender exchanges between friends — new friends, old friends, friends of compatible sexualities who aren’t “thinking about shagging,” at least for the moment. There are friends who share everything, like Otis and Eric, friends who comfort each other without explanation, like Ola and Adam, friends or at least allies united by shared trauma in one bittersweet subplot with the female cast.
The most stirring moments, even as characters experience the treacherous highs and lows of young love, are tender exchanges between friends
Of course the tangled threads of love and sex interplay, but they overlap almost as often as they don’t. There is meaningless, un-special sex between characters who aren’t dating; there is longing and uncertainty between characters who aren’t together and maybe never have or will be. Sex Education taps into the searing emotional frontier of shows like Lovesick and Fleabag, where relationships that can’t be named are as formative if not more so than the ones which make sense.
Perhaps the most beautiful new relationship in Season 2 is between Maeve’s quietly suffering ex Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and his new tutor Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu). Despite their warring social standing, their disparate life plans and sexual/romantic experience, Jackson and Viv click, in the way people sometimes inexplicably do, as if the Universe got tired of excuses like shared interest and history and just said “This will work. Trust me.” The show might force them toward coupledom in a future season, but I sincerely hope not, because to find that connection in its purest form is rare and immense.
It works because friendship and camaraderie are so inextricably linked to love and sex, especially as a teenager. Anyone who has experienced the thrill of a crush has also experienced the rush of freaking out about every infinitesimal detail of that crush with other people. When I asked out my high school prom date (a flex, I know), the first thing I did immediately after was to grab my my nearest close friend and whisper-scream the news to him in the next room.
There’s less sex overall (a.k.a. feel free to download this one for your commute), and the deeper sexual topics covered sometimes feel like more of an online lecture than a TV binge. Where Sex Ed usually sneaks us the education, Season 2 has a lot of balls in the air that leave less time for lessons. More than once, the a sexual conundrum is solved with textbook definitions and even a chalkboard — but the kind embrace of the characters and their world never loosens.
Those moments of classroom-style sex ed cheat the viewer. It’s so much more satisfying to learn and laugh with Otis’ dismal fingering technique as he demonstrates on an orange than to have him or anyone else provide and instructional lecture masquerading as plot development. And while it’s valuable for young viewers to gain an unobstructed understanding of douching or asexuality, these concepts mean more in context.
The asexuality one is particularly disheartening; After introducing the rare destigmatized asexual character, Sex Education feeds us a cursory explainer and then sends her on her merry way, magically immune to peer pressure, further confusion, or the pros and cons of coming out. But because the season is so dense, and because this is Sex Education, I have faith that we aren’t done with this character, and hope to follow her journey in upcoming seasons.
Though not as streamlined as Season 1, Sex Education‘s second coming is no more or less than the established standard. The kids of Moordale finally have a good ol-fashioned high school rager, complete with drunk confessions, hookups, old flames, and interlopers. There are scenes that harken directly to Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, and more, infusing these beloved stories with Sex Ed‘s signature humor and warmth for a new generation of viewers.
Sex Education Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.