Through the first season of Netflix’s charming teen comedy Sex Education, British high schooler Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) sagely dispensed advice to his classmates on all matters of the heart and/or genitals. Early in the second season, Otis finds the tables turned, as he asks a former client for a tutorial on fingering his girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison). He boasts that he’s been using a clock-based technique he read about, but when he demonstrates it for the client using an orange, she’s dismayed by how clumsy and mechanical it looks.
“There’s no magic technique that works with all women,” she tells him. “Every orange is different.” Suggesting he ask Ola directly what she wants, she adds, “Tune into her orange.”
This is wisdom that Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn might have wanted to consider for this season as a whole. The show’s first outing was a delightful mix of raunch and sweetness, as Otis and his crush Maeve (Emma Mackey) set up an underground sex therapy business in their school, with uptight virgin Otis dispensing advice gleaned from a lifetime in proximity to his sex therapist mom, Jean (Gillian Anderson). Nunn peppered the season with romantic tension and other high-school-show staples. But Otis and Maeve’s faux clinic, combined with other stories like the struggle of Otis’ gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) to carve out an identity for himself, made Sex Education feel very tuned into its orange, and no one else’s.
These new episodes, though, too often feel tuned into other oranges, and occasionally apples, pears, and tangelos. The appealing performances and fundamental empathy remain — enough to ultimately make this a rewarding return — but Season Two keeps going off into more clichéd and less interesting territory.
It’s perhaps not a good omen that Otis begins a new school term telling Eric that he might want to give up the sex-clinic business now that he’s dating Ola — and now that things are very tense between him and Maeve. This is pretty basic hero’s journey stuff, and also a familiar trick of many second-season premieres. But even once the clinic gets back up and running, it too often feels like an afterthought, or something to fill the time in between romantic misunderstandings and reconfigurations among the show’s many, many, extremely many love triangles.
The first season also trafficked in triangles — starting off with Otis pining for Maeve while she dated star swimmer Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), and finishing with Maeve being the piner when Otis and Ola became a couple — but the new episodes at times seem unable to recognize any other configuration of characters or drama. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to set your clock by how frequently familiar devices are deployed to bring certain characters together and pull others apart. (Friends may have departed Netflix, but several Ross/Rachel plot points live on here.) Like Otis’ clumsy attempts at fingering, a lot of what happens seems to be determined by a fixed formula, rather than by what fits these characters, and it serves neither the show nor these kids very well.
Otis gets it the worst, as the mechanics of this season’s romantic entanglements require him to act like a massive jerk a lot of the time. There’s a running gag in one episode set at a party where Eric and others note that “drunk Otis is a monster,” but the sober version isn’t much better. No character needs to remain a saint, and the season’s concluding episodes do interesting things with how his bad behavior has impacted his closest relationships. But Sex Education loses a lot of its spark when Otis is so often distracted or unkind.
At the same time, making other characters nicer than they were before backfires. Much of Eric’s story last time around was fueled by the relentless bullying he endured at the hands of Adam (Connor Swindells), son of their school’s headmaster, Mr. Groff (Alistair Petrie). Late in the season, the show went for the creakiest cliché by revealing that Adam’s actions were fueled by his own closeted self-loathing, and he and Eric briefly hooked up before Adam was packed off to military school. Season Two introduces a new potential romantic option for Eric, but it also sets about to redeem Adam, even after he’s done some things (particularly where Eric is concerned) that just seem impossible to forgive. His past sins are acknowledged — one of Otis’ more appealing moments of the season is when he reminds Eric of the extent of Adam’s bullying and its impact — yet his story seems less about introspection than about finding a way to do more with a character the creative team and some fans like(*). It’s not a great look for anyone.
(*) See also: Spike on Buffy becoming part of the gang and, for a while, a Buffy love interest; Veronica Mars ignoring that Logan began the series as a violent sociopath because Jason Dohring and Kristen Bell had great chemistry together; Gossip Girl ignoring the many heinous deeds of Chuck Bass; etc., etc., etc.
Nunn and her team also understandably want to do more with Jean, given how wickedly charming Gillian Anderson is in the role. (Few actors on television are capable of making me laugh harder than she does with her dryly amused reading of lines like, “Is the bike in question your vagina?”) Jean takes more of an active interest in Otis and his classmates this year, which brings the benefit of more Anderson as a whole, as well as her interacting with a wider swath of this big ensemble. But her increased prominence in her son’s life is another thing putting a damper on the sex clinic. Periodically, that business comes back to the forefront, and Otis will attempt to offer counsel on topics like asexuality, dirty talk, and anal douching. He’s not always as useful as he was last year, but there’s still a specificity to the clinic scenes that’s frequently lacking from all the romantic entanglements.
Despite all these distractions, the show still manages to do some terrific work, albeit more in matters tangential to love or sex. There’s a great #MeToo story that plays out delicately across the season, leading to one of the show’s better Eighties homages(*), as several of the characters involved wind up serving detention in the library, Breakfast Club-style. Jackson, meanwhile, offers to help class brain Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) seduce a boy she likes in exchange for help with his role in a school musical production of Romeo and Juliet(**), and the two gain valuable, painful insight into the extreme pressure the other feels. It’s an endearing combination, featuring two characters who are much more complex than the archetypes everyone mistakes them for. And while Maeve is entangled with everything happening between herself, Otis, and Ola, the season does a potent job exploring her past (via the return of her recovering-addict mother, played by His Dark Materials‘ Anne Marie Duff) and future (through her attempt to get back in school and enroll in advanced classes). With Otis frequently making an ass of himself, it’s often up to Maeve to be the conscience of the season, and Mackey rises to the occasion nicely.
(*) The series continues to exist in a kind of chronological limbo. The use of smartphones and much of the terminology about sexuality and gender put it in the present day, yet the clothes and most of the music choices hearken back to the Sixties and Eighties, as it tries to take the best elements of various eras, including our own. (The season’s most effective needle-drop comes courtesy of Sharon Van Etten.)
(**) The play is adapted and produced by Lily (Tanya Reynolds), who hovered on the fringes of Season One, writing her own tentacle-porn comic and desperately searching for a boy to relieve her of her virginity. She’s prominently featured this time around, and is very much a case of more being more, particularly as she and Ola become friends and fellow weirdos.
The season’s later episodes effectively turn back towards the things that this show and only this show can do, and do so well. It’s a welcome return to what made the series special to begin with. But even towards the end, it can’t resist trying out familiar moves from many other stories about love, both young and old. Some of that’s unavoidable, but if Sex Education is going to have the healthy run it seems built for, hopefully future seasons will look back on the lesson Otis’ client teaches him and stop trying to re-peel other oranges.
Season two of Sex Education debuts January 17th. I’ve seen all eight episodes.