Sex Education season 2 review: Makes even its most explicit material seem sweet and charming

The saturated palette, a season one controversy, is now essential to the functioning of the show

Ed Cumming
Thursday 16 January 2020 12:45 GMT
Sex Education Season 2 Trailer

Good news for anyone suffering from too much news about “world war three” and too many true-crime documentaries: the enjoyable comedy Sex Education (Netflix) is back for a second season.

The accidental teenage sex expert Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) worries that he is addicted to masturbating. An opening sequence shows his trousers tenting at the merest provocation. A woman on a shampoo bottle, the rub of his corduroy trousers as he cycles, the bums of jogging schoolmates: all are enough to send him sprinting to his bedroom, the nearest toilet, or tree to relieve himself. Things come to a head, when his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson) catches him doing it in the passenger seat of her car. As a sex therapist, she is mainly unshockable, but still feels obliged to explain to her son that there is a time and place.

It’s an entertaining start that picks up where the first season left off. The episode sees Moordale High overtaken by a chlamydia epidemic. Otis, against his wishes, is called upon to advise his classmates about their sexual anxieties. His mother’s lessons have given him a broader understanding than most. No, he explains, you can’t contract it by sharing a whistle. He and his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) try to get to the bottom of the scare, while Otis confronts his palm habit, which he thinks may be damaging his relationship with his girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison). Their union is complicated further by Jean’s union with Ola’s father Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt). Elsewhere, bad girl Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) is working at a pretzel stand and living in a trailer, determined to return to school.

The ensemble cast is excellent, anchored by Butterfield and Anderson as mother and son, who make the most of dialogue that lets them explore the fringes of likability without straying the wrong side. Alistair Petrie is an entertainingly angry headmaster, Mr Groff, the clearest caricature in a world where most of the archetypes – the jock, the nerds, the rich girls – have their edges blurred. The joke rate is high, and the script is confident enough to throw away lines lesser writing would lean on, which gives you the satisfying sensation that you might not be getting everything first time.

Sex Education’s greatest trick, however, is that it manages to make even its more explicit material seem sweet and charming rather than gross or prurient. Key to this is its visual tone, which draws heavily on American teen comedies. Moordale High is a land of bright colours, wide corridors and a capella groups. Initially I was put off by the saturated palette, but in fact it is essential to the functioning of the comedy. No, it doesn’t look like Wales, any more than Glee is an accurate representation of adolescence in the US. The surreal glossiness in Sex Education is a joke and a cloak. Any realistic depiction of a chlamydia outbreak in a Welsh secondary school would be gritty. Here it is harmless and hilarious. It’s a schooling not just in sex, but in comedy, too.

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