TV: Sex Education (Seasons 1–4)

At its best, Sex Education is a charming teen comedy with a refreshingly positive, frank approach to its subject matter. Working through its full run, though, the returns diminish, the show gradually losing its grip as its farcical world mutates into unconvincing wish-fulfillment fantasy. Set in the fictional UK village of Moordale, Sex Education introduces us to Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), a nerdy, thoughtful teenager who happens to be the child of noted sex therapist Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson). Otis’s reluctant but open relationship with his mother has made him uncommonly knowledgeable about sex—even if that doesn’t help him much with his own hang-ups. His hopeless social situation takes a turn when, by chance, he connects with bright, attractive outcast Maeve (Emma Mackey), with whom he launches an unlikely on-campus business: providing sex advice to fellow teenagers. What starts as an acquaintanceship of convenience evolves into something more, as Otis and Maeve’s enterprise transforms Moordale Secondary into a sexually charged institution of some notoreity.

There is so much to like about Sex Education, especially early on, and even after its loses its luster it’s still worth watching. The starring cast is terrific, with Anderson, Butterfield, Mackey, and the dynamic Ncuti Gatwa (as Otis’s best friend Eric, who has an especially complicated life) driving the dramatic bus. The passengers, meanwhile, are a veritable embarrassment of riches; Patricia Allison, Mimi Keene, Mikael Persbrandt, Alistair Petrie, Tanya Reynolds, Connor Swindells, Kedar Williams-Sterling, and Aimee Lou Wood all make great impressions in extended roles. Beyond the winning humor and awkward relationship dynamics, the key ingredient is the show’s willingeness to gaze unflinchingly at the growing pains of sexuality in a healthy, communicative way. Would that more shows like this had existed, sooner, to help our sexually dysfunctional society wrap its head around its problems. If Sex Education has a lasting legacy, it will be its conversation-changing nature, injecting a frequently toxic subgenre with empathy and positivity. Speaking of which, those qualities generally resonate through the characters; Otis, while a mess himself, is sympathetic and non-judgmental in his guidance, which helps him gradually worm his way into the heart of Maeve. Butterfield and Mackey sell the pair’s burgeoning affection convincingly.

Unfortunately, the show increasingly strains muscles under the weight of generating content. This begins, mildly, in season three, when Moordale is taken over by a conservative semi-fascist headmistress (Jemima Kirke), but the pain doesn’t manifest in earnest until season four, a “soft reboot” that ports numerous principals from the American high school vibe of Moordale into the loopy, fantastical Cavendish College. Cavendish is colorful but contrived, hybridizing left-wing social media posturing and a Silicon Valley tech company. It’s so exaggerated, the transferring Moordale students come off like Gen X refugees facing an alien new landscape full of heightened-reality Gen Z sociopolitics. To be fair, it’s commendable how the show expands the discussion to be more inclusive; the show remains empathetic, and in later seasons that empathy is extended to the furthest reaches of the LGBTQA+ community, a welcome, overdue development in the medium. Alas, at times the messaging is delivered with concussion-inducing blunt force, set against a cartoonish backdrop. The show has other problems, especially its weakness for redeeming abusers—bullies, psychologically abusive parents, intolerant religious communities. And the unexpected romantic chemistry between Butterfield and Mackey, a classic will-they-won’t-they throughline, loses its spark well before they finally find each other—a key element of the show’s heart never quite fully capitalized on.

All things considered, though, Sex Education possesses truckloads of refreshing charm, and hopefully has launched more than a few major careers. Perhaps it stayed on the shelf a smidge past its sell-by date, but it’s still well worth visiting.

Scroll to Top