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‘Sex Education’ ends at just the right time

Asa Butterfield as Otis and Emma Mackey as Maeve in "Sex Education."Sam Taylor/Netflix

I’ve come to cherish the characters on Netflix’s “Sex Education,” which ends at just the right time this week, with the release of season 4. It’s similar to the way I came to cherish the characters on “Shameless,” except by the time those folk left, after 11 seasons, I couldn’t wait to say goodbye. They’d overstayed, to put it mildly.

“Sex Education” and “Shameless” have a lot of good things in common, though, in their honesty and warmth, in their messy and lovable characters, in their ability to swing effortlessly between drama and broad comedy, and in their willingness to be frank about sexuality. With the final season, “Sex Education” goes out on a high, depending as much as before on the same balance of joy and melancholy that has made it into one of TV’s best coming-of-age series ever. Our kids are a little older — this season, most of them, except for Adam (Connor Swindells), have started college — but they’re still a bit unformed and looking for definition, self-acceptance, and love.

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Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) are at the same college, with Otis trying to maintain a long-distance romance with Maeve (Emma Mackey), who’s studying writing in the States. Otis is hoping that, as in high school, he can offer his compassionate sex therapy to his classmates, a little like his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson). But in what becomes one of TV’s strangest popularity contests, he must compete with an established student sex therapist, called O (Thaddea Graham), who values her campus role and won’t share it without a fight.

Some of the season’s humor comes from the differences between high school and college, where the cool kids are an LGBTQ clique that includes a trans couple — Roman (Felix Mufti) and Abbi (Anthony Lexa) — and a deaf woman of color, Aisha (Alexandra James). These new characters bring a freshness to the season, with their relentless positivity and openness, and they are well-cast. They adore Eric from the first moment, but they’re less convinced about Otis, which creates some nice tension between the loving friends whose bond has been a highlight of the series.

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Dan Levy shows up as Maeve’s demanding writing teacher, and he’s a kick. But the best of the season belongs to the regulars, including the endearing Aimee (Aimee Lou Gibbs). Will Otis and Maeve make it? Will Eric be able to make peace between his religious passion and his sexual orientation? Will Jean survive single motherhood with an infant as well as the arrival of her difficult sister? I think you’ll enjoy discovering the answers to these and the show’s other questions.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.