“Last night I looked at some cheese and I got an erection,” groans Otis (Asa Butterfield) in the opening minutes of Sex Education season 2. When we first met the show’s amateur sex counsellor back in season one, he dedicated a troubling amount of time to pretending to masturbate. This time around, he’s fully gripped by the horn. After a mortifying public incident, mum Jean – played, once again, to comedic perfection by Gillian Anderson – sits her son down, and calmly informs him that there’s a time and a place for self-love. And Otis isn’t the only character who struggles to determine where boundaries lie this time around.
In season two, the cast are on the awkward cusp of adulthood – and surrounded by equally hapless adults. They’re growing up fast, and dealing with increasingly complex conundrums for the first time – many of the moral challenges in this season have far more serious consequences. The frequent missteps and misconceptions form the backbone of the new episodes.
Otis’ clinic – once a sage voice of reason – wildly misses the point much of the time: he fails to listen to people properly, and instead dishes out dubious advice on topics he knows nothing about, ranging from asexuality to dirty talk. In one table-turning scene, Otis ends up asking for a masterclass in fingering. Wielding an orange as a prop, his classmate informs a bewildered Otis that there’s no hidden key or fail-safe ‘clock method’. “There’s no magic technique that works with all women,” she tells him, and puts forward a simpler solution: why doesn’t he just ask Ola what she likes? Increasingly, this kind of honest communication begins to triumph over pretending to hold all the answers.
A sensitively-handled plot dealing with the #MeToo movement is one of the most quietly affecting threads of the season. At first, the affected character shrugs, and attempts to laugh off the experience. Show creator Laurie Nunn handles its damaging effects with a delicacy that strikes close to home, articulating the ways that we use comedy to minimise trauma. In one of Sex Education’s best sequences to date, a Breakfast Club-esque after-school detention sees a group of women at the school confiding in each other and sharing their experiences of harassment. Paying homage to the ’80s aesthetic that shapes the entire show, they eventually stride out of the school in powerful formation, and help their friend to overcome her fears.
Though comedy often takes a back-seat in favour of thornier issues – this second season is far less lewd, sometimes to its detriment – Sex Education boasts enough moments of true hilarity to maintain pace. The school production of Romeo and Juliet, which closes the season, is even hornier than Tom Hooper’s recent adaptation of Cats – calamitous, ludicrous viewing from start to finish.
Providing further comic relief, Jean is far more involved in proceedings this time around: her friendship with the headmaster’s wife Maureen Groff – and their rowdy night out on the town – is a season highlight. Up there with Tanya Reynolds’ Lilly Inglehart, and Ncuti Gatwa’s Eric (both actors possesses truly scene-stealing comic timing), Gillian Anderson has some of the show’s best one-liners. “Is the bike in question your vagina?” stands out as a classic example of her matter-of-fact delivery.
Adam (Conor Swindells|) meanwhile, is redeemed from the slightly lazy resolution of season one – duh, of course he bullies Eric because of internalised homophobia! – and his surprisingly quick humour begins to cut through his steely facade. In quiet moments where nobody is watching, Adam amuses himself with counter-top dance routines, and admits to having a soft-spot for musicals. By the end, he borders on likeable. Even Anwar and Ruby, who peer down their noses at classmates, are shown in a different, more human light. Jackson, jock supreme, strikes up an unlikely friendship that defies Moordale High’s distinct cliques. Maeve – typically unconcerned with how she’s viewed by her peers – is compassionate and moral. Meanwhile, Otis becomes increasingly cruel and thoughtless.
Obsessed with being perceived as the good guy, and ultimately behaving like a massive prick in the process, Otis’ multitude of fuck-ups makes for painful viewing. But crucially, where the show’s resident know-it-all fails, open dialogue and honestly wins out instead. Sex Education might not profess to hold any of the answers, but it handles the nuance of not knowing brilliantly.