This review contains spoilers for the shows Sex Education, The Office, The Good Place, and You.
I watched the first two seasons of Sex Education in one sitting after a friend of mine had recommended it. The fact that I watched it all in one go speaks to the show’s quality: the first two seasons are fantastic. The show going on hiatus due to COVID left me very excited for the third season to finally come out. All of the characters had come into their own, and the second season ended on a very dramatic cliffhanger. While I liked the third season, part of me couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I had to motivate myself to keep watching it, even after months of eager anticipation. I’ve narrowed down my reasons for feeling this way: the structure of the season, the way certain supporting characters' stories are treated, and the Maeve-Otis relationship.
The third season of a show is often the one they use to try a bit of a switch-up: think Jim moving to a new branch in The Office, the characters of The Good Place being put on Earth, or Joe settling down with a love interest and a child in You. Season one establishes the world, characters, and general premise, while season two expands on these as the show finds a good rhythm. By making it to season three, the show has earned itself the right to experiment. That experimentation comes in the form of Hope (Jemima Kirke), Moordale’s new headteacher. To be quite frank, she’s a massive piece of shit. I won’t make a laundry list of all the traits that make her an awful person, but the general theme is that she’s prejudiced, cruel, and emotionally abusive towards the students. This manifests in her forcefully implementing her conservative ideals in the school. She’s a villain that’s easy to hate. With her arrival, the personal lives of the characters become side stories.
This development contrasts with the first two seasons, where the primary story of the sex clinic was intertwined with the personal lives of the students at Moordale. The sex clinic and the open conversations around sexuality that it fostered mirrored the personal growth that the characters underwent. The big sex musical at the end of season two was emblematic of this personal growth with regards to sexuality that the characters experienced. In season three, however, the main story is, for the most part, separate from the personal lives of the characters. Because of this, there’s a serious lack of momentum throughout the season as it jumps back and forth between the main story and the characters’ lives outside of school. That is part of why I didn’t binge it like I did with the first two seasons. The students' lives tend to be a lot more interesting to watch than the conflict at the school. That’s not to say that the main storyline is boring – there’s a lot there to fuel your hate of Hope. With every episode, her abuse becomes more and more severe. But until she gets her comeuppance, that’s all that you’re watching: her being shittier and shittier.
The lives of the students outside of school make for far more emotionally complex storylines. Cal (Dua Saleh) is probably the best new addition to the cast, and I thought the way their relationship with Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) progressed was very realistic. It avoided having a sweet and satisfying ending and instead chose to more realistically depict the struggles both Cal and Jackson would have if they tried to pursue a romantic relationship.
The relationship between Eric and Adam progressed in a similar way. That is, it didn’t feel like a form of wish-fulfillment for the fans. The way their contrasting personalities and personal desires drove the conflict in their relationship felt genuine, even if it was surprising. Based on what we saw of them in the first two seasons, it might be expected that Adam would mess things up in their relationship. His struggle with anger and self-confidence in his sexuality at the beginning of this season hint at that, so it’s quite a shock when Eric cheats on him while he's in Nigeria. Even though it’s a terrible thing for Eric to do to Adam (who at this point has finally become comfortable in his relationship), the show frames what Eric did in a way that makes the audience feel for him as well as Adam. Eric’s sexual orientation stands in opposition to his cultural roots, so when he finds a place in Nigeria that’s accepting of who he is, he’s overcome with emotion and makes a rash decision. That’s not an excuse for his harmful behavior, but it’s an example of how Sex Education develops these complex relationships between its characters, creating ambiguities that make the show as engaging as it is.
This time around, however, the Cal-Jackson and Eric-Adam arcs are the exceptions to the rule. A lot of the side characters’ arcs appeared either undercooked or rushed. Part of that is definitely because they had fewer episodes to work with. It’s a shame that with the shorter season length, the episodes were not used to their full potential. The side plot with Viv’s (Chinenye Ezeudu) boyfriend that she was sexting has no real point other than a hot boyfriend reveal at the end of the season, and the conflict between Ola (Patricia Allison) and Lily (Tanya Reynolds) didn’t make for any truly substantive character moments the way the Eric-Adam or Cal-Jackson relationships did.
After Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Ruby (Mimi Keene) break up, Ruby doesn’t get much attention even though there are so many interesting things about her that could’ve been explored further. I would’ve loved to learn more about her relationship with her father or the reasons behind her guarded personality. When she attacks Hope in the projector room, it isn’t as engaging as if Cal or Viv had done it because Ruby doesn’t have any specific gripe with Hope. To return to the Lily and Viv storylines, the conflict in Lily’s storyline doesn’t pick up until a few episodes in, and it just sort of...resolves itself? It’s not all that clear what makes it happen, but it seems like it was tossed in there without much thought. Viv’s arc is similarly lazy. After assisting Hope in implementing policies she knows are harmful to her fellow students, Viv decides to turn on Hope only after she makes her motivations as blunt and clear as day; as if all of the incredibly abusive and destructive things she was doing already weren’t enough. Viv is too smart for that. And plot-wise, it’s too convenient.
Conversely, too much time was spent on the Otis-Maeve relationship. That season two cliffhanger with the phone message that left people on the edge of their seats? Not that big of a deal, apparently, as Isaac (George Robinson) tells Maeve (Emma Mackey) that he deleted Otis’s voicemail very early on in the season. Things get more complicated when Maeve and Otis kiss on the France trip after not being friendly all season. We also see a lot of tension between Isaac and Otis. But guess what? It doesn’t really matter! Because Maeve eventually chooses Otis, and Isaac gets left behind. All it took to reach this conclusion was a bunch of on-and-off, will-they-won’t-they back-and-forth drama that takes up way too much time in the season. This was time that could’ve been spent on fleshing out the more underdeveloped arcs the season had going on. I care about Otis and Maeve as individual characters, but I found it hard to care about their relationship like I did in the first two seasons because nothing interesting happens. It stalemates until it doesn’t.
In fact, Maeve and Otis’s individual plotlines are far more compelling; both of them deal with what it means to have a family. Maeve’s family situation has always set her apart from her peers, and the emotional toll it takes on her has caused her to grow up faster than those around her, and this season she has to deal with her addict mother trying to steal her younger sister away. Otis’s family situation is the opposite – his mother is a consistent and caring presence in his life. She may be somewhat overbearing and intrusive, but it’s heaven compared to Maeve’s situation. Although Otis does have to deal with his mother (Gillian Anderson) and Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) getting back together, it’s nothing on the level of the emotional distress Maeve feels. That’s another reason why their relationship doesn’t work the way the show wants it to. They aren’t some perfect match destined to be together, only kept apart by a series of pesky obstacles. Maeve is far more mature than Otis, who behaves selfishly throughout the season when it comes to his relationship with Maeve. Otis’ relationship with Ruby in the first half of the season might seem odd at first glance, but they’re clearly more compatible than Maeve and Otis are when it comes to their personalities.
Despite all of the things that kept this season from reaching the heights established by the previous two, I think it's fine. The episode-to-episode experience was entertaining, but as a whole, the writers could’ve done a lot better developing and connecting all the moving parts. I’m glad that such a progressive and sex-positive show has been made popular by this generation of teenagers. Kids currently in middle school or high school are so lucky to have that positive portrayal of these issues. However, because so many of the characters’ arcs are left by the wayside, season three of Sex Education is distinctly shallow compared to the first two seasons. I haven’t heard much in the way of criticism of season three, which concerns me because season four is already in production. It might end up lacking. I’m hoping we get the standard ten episodes this time around so that they deliver a more strategically paced and cohesive season.