It is true. “Sex Education” is about sex. But the coming-of-age series, whose third season just arrived on Netflix, is more unrelentingly about self-awareness, honesty, self-acceptance, and compassion. It’s really about matters of the heart, even as it gives us the hormone-fueling gropings of the kids at Moordale Secondary School. We see how sexual development and emotional growth dovetail, sometimes more smoothly than others.
Wait, does that sound dry? “Sex Education” is a lively and refreshingly positive series, one that for me is in the Hall of Fame of the best TV takes on teens. Created by Laurie Nunn, it has a generous spirit as it looks into the intimate lives of its ever-expanding cast of characters. The core of the series is the mother-son connection between Gillian Anderson’s Jean Milburn, a sex therapist, and Asa Butterfield’s Otis, who became a school notable for serving as a sex adviser to his classmates. They are a great pair — both the characters and the actors — as they tussle over boundary issues.
But the action expands out of the Milburn home and into those of Otis’s friends, who have their own struggles. Otis is clearly meant to be with Maeve, but she is coping with her drug-addicted mother’s absence, and anyway he is involved with the school Queen Bee, Ruby, who insists that their relationship remain secret. He is way beneath Ruby in the social hierarchy. Meanwhile, Otis’s best friend, Eric, is falling in love with Adam, who hasn’t come out to his mother, who is now separated from his father. And so on, and so forth. None of it is soapy, but almost all of it is funny, or at least tinged with humor. For me, every time Anderson says something, anything, to anyone, I want to laugh. Her enunciations and her timing are thoroughly enjoyable.
The new season is more or less defined by the school’s new head teacher, Hope Haddon, who encourages the kids to call her simply Hope. Played by Jemima Kirke, she acts as though she’s hip — but she quickly turns out to be the big bad, as she is pressured to undo Moordale’s reputation as “the sex school.” The more she bears down on the students to behave properly, to erase their individualities and walk single-file, the less they do. Uh, duh.
All the young actors shine, but none of them more than Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Eric with an energy and resilience that is inspiring to watch. This season, Gatwa isn’t just a joy; he brings more nuance and authenticity than ever. The writers give him a lot to do, wisely, as he copes with Adam’s inability to articulate his needs. At one point, Eric and his family go to Nigeria for a wedding, and Eric gets a glimpse of what it means to be gay in a country where same-sex activity is illegal. It’s a sobering detour, for Eric and for us.