There’s Still So Much to Love about Sex Education

NOTE: There are definitely spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Getting the flu really sucks. What with all the coughing, sneezing, body aches and chills, you really can’t do much while you’re recovering. It’s almost as if my body was insisting that I stay in and binge watch the second season of Sex Education on Netflix. Challenge accepted!

I absolutely adored the first season of the show. It was funny, educational and charming. I expected nothing less from the second outing. However, while the season was still great, I should’ve remembered the sophomore slump. New shows often have trouble finding their footing after an excellent first season. Sex Education didn’t buck that trend.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a whole lot that’s wonderful. As was true of last season, I appreciated the show tackling topics that are still somewhat taboo in mainstream television. Season 2 focused a lot on romantic identities, like asexuality and pansexuality, and figuring out what that meant. As someone who works with teenagers, I can tell you that many of them struggle with their romantic identities and they aren’t always good at communicating what’s going on with them. Sex Education not only defined these realities but also showed how people can talk to their partners to make sexual experiences fun for everyone no matter the desire. This is helpful.

It also was good to see safe sex once again front and center, with storylines focusing on chlamydia and potential pregnancy. Although teen pregnancy is decreasing, the United States and Great Britain still have unacceptably high rates. And sexually transmitted diseases are no joke since young adults (15-24 year olds) make up half of all new STD infections. Given the statistics, safe sex is incredibly necessary and the show made that plain. Instead of turning a plotline about a couple being uncertain if they’d used protection (since both were drunk) into a Very Special Episode, they just showed them buying and using Plan B. That’s the way it should be.

Then there was the great way they handled sexual violence. A lot of television shows and movies depict female characters who’ve been raped or assaulted but they rarely give voice to the awful ways microaggressions make you feel violated and unsafe. Sex Education handled this powerfully by corralling several of the young women together in a Breakfast Club-esque scene in which they were being punished for slut-shaming, yet another topic most shows don’t cover.

The young women were told that they couldn’t leave until they bonded together as women, something we fail to do far too often in our culture (how many times have I heard women complain that they cannot trust other women?). At first the girls fell back into the old behavioral patterns frequently exhibited by an oppressed group. They made fun of each other’s interests, sniped at each other over boys and were dismissive of the idea that they had anything in common. But then they all sadly and potently realized they’d all been treated terribly by men. When their realization turned from sadness into anger, that’s when it got good.

Much has been written about the ways in which women’s anger gets ignored, suppressed and punished, so we don’t see it too often. We certainly don’t see it practically celebrated. But Sex Education went there. It was such a delight to see a diverse group of young women connecting, cathartically releasing their anger and then banding together to help one of their own take back her power. It was healthy, empowering and hopeful. Truly, it was one of the highlights of the season. Television writers, take note: more of this please!

Since last season dealt mostly with fathers, it was only fair that this season focused mainly on mothers. Last season, we saw just how influential Otis’ parents were in his psychosocial development. This season, the impact of the powerful parent/child dynamic stretched to other characters as well. We got to see Eric’s mom show just how well she knows her son, why Jackson’s mom pushes him so hard to swim, the origins of Maeve’s difficulties with trust, the softer side of emotional abuse with Adam’s mom and just a glimpse into how Amy got to be so disconnected from herself. But what was truly amazing was that even though many of the mothers demonstrated ill-advised behavior, they weren’t portrayed as villains. It was clear that these mothers loved their children and offered what wisdom they possessed. The show doesn’t let them off the hook for their flaws but it does give them some grace.

For all that was good though, there was other stuff that wasn’t so great. Chief among them was the budding romance between Adam and Eric. Even Ncuti Gatwa, the actor playing Eric, has a hard time justifying the storyline. Adam was a terrible bully to Eric throughout the first season. While we sympathized with the reasons behind Adam’s behavior, he still was awful. By having the two of them get together, the show is seemingly excusing the bullying. That’s not OK. Sending the message that bullying is fine if you have good reasons for it or that dating your abuser is romantic is not only wrong but dangerous. Past behavior is the best predictor for future behavior. If someone who was abusive hasn’t done a lot of work on themselves to change and made amends to their victims, staying away is the best option.

Another disappointing aspect of Season 2 was their use of tired clichés: the outrageous teen party where a main character gets drunk and destroys relationships, the deletion of a crucial voicemail by a jealous third party, and the refusal to get the main couple together. This last one is especially irksome. I really missed the lovely interactions between Maeve and Otis as they helped each other grow and the show suffered for their absence. But even beyond that, the choice to keep them apart seems like a creative failure. It’s almost as if television writers have no clue how to elicit dramatic tension in committed couples.

In reality, relationships are a constant push and pull as people figure out how to work as a team. Nowhere is that more evident than in teen relationships which can be not only incredibly intense but also rife with insecurity, jealousy, misunderstandings and uncertainty about the future. Teens are new to couple dynamics, so there’s a lot of drama as they try to figure it out together. Surely, this would be more fun to watch than the tedious “will they or won’t they” dilemma that’s been done to death.

So, the second season of Sex Education was a mixed bag. But even with its flaws, it’s still by far the best show about teenagers and sex. It was even good enough to help me forget about having the flu.

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