In three seasons, Sex Education has taught a masterclass in truly representative teen television. And, unlike many of its peers, the show has done right by its queer and dark-skinned Black characters. The bar is on the floor, but Sex Education has set a new standard.
If you are, like me, obsessed with shows about people way younger than you, and still get wrapped up in teen dramas at your big age, Sex Education is going to be extremely your shit. The series is set in the fictional town of Moordale and revolves around a teen named Otis (Asa Butterfield) who starts a makeshift sex therapy practice, taking after his mum Jean (Gillian Anderson), a real sex therapist. Those two characters are the show’s backbone and hold up its premise, but it’s the cast around them that have turned Sex Education from an intriguing idea into one of the freshest, funniest, and truly inclusive series on television. It’s a teen show that refuses to talk down to its audience (actually teenagers, presumably), and feels like it’s written by people who have a deep understanding of what it’s like to navigate the horny halls of a high school (even if they aren’t actual teenagers, presumably — the show’s creator is 30-something Laurie Nunn).
Sex Education is legitimately educational (let’s talk about vulvas, baby) but it’s never preachy. From tackling everything from sexual assault, to coming out, to academic pressures, to what it’s like to be a nonbinary teenager, Sex Education is fearless, imaginative and authentic. And its secret ingredient, like most shows, is its Black cast. Ncuti Gatwa plays Eric, Otis’s best friend and a gay Black boy who exudes confidence and joy. This season, he’s figuring out his new relationship with his former bully turned boyfriend, Adam (Connor Swindells), and is continuing to steal every damn scene he’s in. Gatwa is a STAR. Kedar Williams-Stirling returns in an understated but strong performance as sweet jock Jackson and Chinenye Ezeudu is back as overachieving Viv, a character I wish I had been friends with in high school. But it’s Dua Saleh who plays Cal, a new face in Season 3 and Moordale Secondary School’s outspoken nonbinary student, who gives the standout performance of the season. They ooze charisma and cool, but also convey the frustrations that come with existing in a world that upholds gender binaries.
If you are sick of the American Netflix teen series that love colourism as much as they love explaining how social media works (ahem, Gossip Girl), Sex Education is a refreshing antidote. Dark-skinned characters (especially dark Black girls or nonbinary kids, who are often sidelined on teen TV) not only exist, they get to have hopes, dreams and full interior lives. When we talk about representation on TV (which has turned into a shallow discussion lacking nuance), this is what we should be talking about. We should be lauding shows like Sex Education that don’t just sprinkle in characters of colour, disabled characters, queer characters, or all of the above, for clout, but that actually delve deep into their stories.
Sex Education doesn't just sprinkle in characters of colour, disabled characters, queer characters, or all of the above, for clout, but actually delves deep into their stories.
You know when a show is so good, you have to carve out an entire weekend to park your ass on your couch and savour every second? Yeah, that was me last weekend when Sex Education Season 3 dropped. I know not all of you dropped your plans to do the same (aka scream “yes, Netflix, I am still watching!” at your TV) so I’ll avoid spoilers — mostly. What I will say is this: this season is so good, I had to pause on multiple occasions to laugh until my cheeks hurt. It also made me cry a little. Get you a show that can do both.
This season, we pick up with the unlikeliest of couples. Otis is having casual sex with the most popular girl in school, Ruby (Mimi Keene) while Eric and Adam are this close to going all the way. Since Adam used to literally bully our sweet Eric, how sweet they are together can be a little jarring — in a good way. And Ola (Patricia Allison) and Lily (Tanya Reynolds) are still going strong. The way this show handles the intricacies of teen relationships is SO good, I really don’t think any other show (including my beloveds Elite and Never Have I Ever) is even close to getting it this right. Take for example, how it handles when Eric and Adam try to have sex for the first time only to realise that they are both *spoiler alert* bottoms. The show plays the moment for laughs initially but then settles into a poignant exploration of Adam’s communication issues. And Eric? Even though he’s got the confidence to spare, he’s still new to the whole boyfriend thing too. Plus, I love how the show gets into Eric’s identity as British-Nigerian and what being gay in Nigeria means. It’s hard to describe what Ncuti Gatwa is doing with this character because every inflection, every movement and every line is so intentional and so full of purpose and light, only watching him can do the performance justice. Every episode, I am in awe of his work.
The best thing about Sex Education is that it repackages tropes in a unique way that never feels stale. The new overbearing headteacher, Hope (Girls alum Jemima Kirke), is a principal who is out to ruin all the kids’ fun. This is an overused trope in teen content (see The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Election) but here, Hope is used as a way for our besties at Moordale Secondary to assert their independence. Plus, she acts as a vessel to critique the antiquated thinking of generations past, even if that generation isn’t that old. When Hope tries to dismiss Cal’s gender identity, they call it out for the bullshit it is, and it makes for some of the season’s most compelling scenes. If you didn’t know Dua Saleh’s name before, you will now. They are an extraordinary talent.
I haven’t even gotten to Aimee (Aimee Gibbs), who is reeling after her sexual assault on a bus last season, but she’s working through her PTSD with the help of her best friend Maeve (Emma Mackey), who is on her own journey of self discovery. Another thing this show does so well is depict real and honest female friendships. Aimee and Mauve will have you swooning at their love, even though it’s strictly platonic.
Sex Education is a show about teens so it’s not going to get the praise for being one of the most progressive depictions of therapy on television or for having the most genuine sex scenes either (and the hottest love scene featuring a disabled character I’ve seen on TV, well, ever). It’s going to get overlooked for how smart it is and it’ll get misjudged because of its humour — kind of like teens themselves. But if TikTok has taught us anything, it’s that underestimating the youths is always a bad idea. Don’t make the mistake of missing out on one of the best shows on television, period.