Wednesday, January 15, 2020

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Sex Education' - Season 2

Netflix's Sex Education returns for its second season on Friday, January 17. The comedy stars Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, Connor Swindells, Aimee-Lou Wood, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Chaneil Kular, Simone Ashley, Mimi Keene, Tanya Reynolds, Mikael Persbrandt, Patricia Allison, Jim Howick, Rakhee Thakrar, Samantha Spiro, James Purefoy and Alistair Petrie.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening all 8 episodes.

In its second season, Netflix's hourlong dramedy Sex Education continues to point out to an extreme extent why teenagers need insightful and valuable sexual education in school. It takes the stereotype that all teenagers are obsessed with sex all the time and turns it on its head to embrace a worldview where that is actually the reality. As such, it's no big deal when characters are just randomly talking about their sexual encounters through the hallways of their school or for them to ask questions openly during class. That has been the home environment Otis Milburn has always known. He marketed his skills as a pseudo sex and relationship expert in the first season. The second begins with that underground clinic seemingly at risk with Otis devoting more of his time to his new girlfriend Ola and Maeve being expelled from school. It shouldn't be surprising that the series quickly re-establishes that central premise. It does so in an absolutely extreme way where the people at Moordale High believe that an outbreak of chlamydia could be an apocalyptic virus spread from the air. It shows how ill-informed even some of the adults actually are on the subject. It may be too overwhelming for Otis to handle on his own. He certainly takes on that burden and is furious when people don't respect or appreciate his words of wisdom. This is a tough season for the young protagonist. Sure, there is the celebration of him being just as sexually capable as any of his peers now that his fear of masturbation has vanished. And yet, that is just one component of relationships. Communication is so widespread and important. So many issues can potentially be solved with the characters being honest with one another. Of course, there is no fun in that. And so, the show continues to present a world in which Otis' peers trust him with their sexual problems and questions even though he is far from an expert. Damage is done and relationships are tested. But that's what makes this show so insightful and wonderful to watch. It is willing to have these frank conversations for the entire array of sexuality. This season has earnest and genuine conversations about asexuality, pansexuality and bisexuality. That is a huge accomplishment for visibility. And yet, there are some plot developments that feel a little too familiar and expected as well. As such, there remains room for improvement and more imagination in the future even though the season is solid overall.

Otis and Maeve have been positioned as a will they?/won't they? couple. The audience probably has strong feelings about whether they belong together. The various characters of this world have their opinions as well. Sometimes they voice them and it's beneficial. Other times it is absolutely crushing because they keep their feelings to themselves. It can particularly be a frustrating season for viewers who want these two teenagers to get together. They remain actively involved in each other's lives. However, they keep trading off on who is actively in love with the other. That's a plot dynamic that has been utilized for decades now. There isn't some kind of stunning reinvention of the format here either. Maeve has a crush on Otis even though he is now dating Ola. That defines a significant stretch of episodes this season. As such, it's important for both characters to be defined by more than what could potentially be between them. That is to the benefit of the viewer as well. Both Otis and Maeve deserve to be multi-faceted characters. That means Maeve spends a significant amount of time away from the clinic. She is dealing with new family drama as well as the potential she has to excel because of her intellect. Meanwhile, Otis needs constant support from his best friend Eric that he is making the right choices in the moment with everything he is doing. That anxiety and paranoia almost cripples him at times. It's amusing to watch. It means he falls down the stairs and discovers that his mother Jean is in a relationship with Ola's father, Jakob. That's unexpected to him. He isn't trusted to have a mature reaction either. That too is fascinating. He is seen as this wise mentor who can fix the various problems his peers have. And yet, the narrative is very frank this season that he is a teenager who is petulant and reckless. He goes to some tragic places this year that not everyone can completely support his actions. It's a journey that is immensely rewarding in the end too because it forces him to reflect on why he puts this pressure on himself. He is aided on that journey by an increased sense of agency from both of his parents. Jean finds her way into a number of different stories this season giving out advice that could also potentially be helpful. Meanwhile, Remi is actually in the same country as his ex-wife and son. He interacts with them in the same physical space which further brings the tension of this family unit to the surface especially as Jean and Otis have tried building happy lives without him.

The strength of the show ultimately comes down to the incredible ensemble. There are so many characters who populate this world. So many of them have engaging and oftentimes heartbreaking stories this year. Aimee has an unexpected moment of profound loss and depth that is absolutely gut-wrenching. An adventure Ruby embarks on with an unexpected partner is surprisingly emotional and rewarding. Anwar feels more comfortable letting some of his insecurities out. Lily finds a new outlet for her creative passions in the school musical which leads to a wild and weird set piece in the season finale. Plus, there are a handful of newcomers who also leave their mark on this world. Now, Netflix has told critics not to spoil the importance of some of these new additions. As such, it's tricky to talk about what works. For instance, it's difficult to remark on the extent of Eric's story this season even though he remains vastly important to the proceedings. Suffice to say, Season 1 was a journey of self-discovery and self-love for him while Season 2 is one of empowerment and open acceptance. It may or may not include Adam as well. He was last seen heading off to military school. However, it's not a spoiler to say that Connor Swindells remains a series regular for the new season. Plus, some of the new relationships are very strong in their own right. They don't even have to be sexual. Jackson's new tutor also shares an extracurricular activity with Maeve. That particular friendship helps open up both of their worlds to new possibilities without needing the suspicion of sexual feelings. This remains a show that knows how to tell entertaining stories in an hourlong format. So much happens in each specific episode. It is still an insanely easy show to binge watch across a weekend. Again, there are moments designed to frustrate the viewer. Some of them work while others do not. However, the good in this series greatly shines beyond the more awkward moments.