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‘Sex Education’ season two: more stories, less luster

| Thursday, January 23, 2020

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

The first season of Netflix’s “Sex Education” was a revelation. It was filled to the brim with interesting characters who subverted stereotypes. Its premise — an unlikely duo of high school outcasts team up to give sex advice to their classmates — was just weird enough without being too weird. It presented an image of teendom that was both surreal and undeniably accurate. The show’s sophomore season manages to maintain some of these strengths, but loses a bit of its luster in the process. 

As before, “Sex Education” boasts an effective soundtrack, with songs like The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” adding poignancy to key scenes while endowing the series with a sense of nostalgia. Such song selections also augment the overarching aura of timelessness that already surrounds the show, due largely to its characters’ unusual sartorial choices.

Underneath their clothes, though, the characters we knew in season one are still just as witty, awkward and multi-faceted — for the most part. Their stories continue to form the crux of what makes “Sex Education” worth watching. Lily, for instance, plays a much more prominent role in season two, and her quirkiness never becomes irritating. Aimee’s arc of trauma and gradual healing stands out amidst other storylines that feel more rushed. An early-season assault suffered by Aimee on a bus (and the cold apathy of other passengers) is truly disturbing, and her eventual outburst is fully “earned,” given that we have watched Aimee struggle with the attack’s aftermath — including avoiding the bus and physical affection from her boyfriend while imagining the face of her attacker in public spaces. The care and attention shown to Aimee’s story — which culminates in an epic scene of garbage-smashing and a show of bus-riding solidarity amongst once-disparate classmates — stands in stark contrast with some of the show’s other plot points. Lily and Ola’s relationship, for instance, began so unexpectedly that it seems dangerously unprecedented. The suddenness with which Ola appears to develop feelings for Lily could be symbolic of the breakneck speed with which high schoolers careen from one emotion to the next, but the show doesn’t establish this. If Aimee’s story is “earned,” Ola and Lily’s certainly isn’t.

Season two also allows viewers a deeper look into Adam’s home life, expanding our knowledge of his parents’ issues in a way that is helpful. But after a few episodes, the time devoted to Mr. and Mrs. Groff begins to feel like a waste, especially since Mr. Groff still fails to develop into a villain with real depth. The writers find more success when they lead Adam down a path of self-discovery and improvement, and it ultimately feels like a good thing when the show aligns him with Eric over Rahim. Of course, Rahim isn’t particularly interesting. By the end of the season, all we really know about him is that he came from France, is an atheist and is openly gay. The show never fully brings him to life, which is a shame, given the amount of screen time he gets.

But it isn’t just new characters like Rahim — or Maeve’s mother, whose relapse into addiction accomplishes little other than making us feel sorry for Maeve — who fall flat. Otis, the show’s protagonist drags the whole show down with him in his descent from charm. The way he treats Jakob, his mother’s boyfriend, is petty and inexcusable, and his drunken speech in the sixth episode is hard to watch. The show wastes time following him from one narcissistic impulse to the next; this decreases his overall likability, since he is at his most endearing when he is giving advice. That’s when the show is at its best, too. Season one’s clinic scenes provided a framework in which drama could unfold, as well as a sort of thematic unity. Without those scenes — as season two often is — the show feels unmoored.

 

Show: “Sex Education” season 2

Starring: Asa Butterfield, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, Connor Swindells

Favorite episodes: “Episode 3,” “Episode 7”

If you like: Riverdale, Big Mouth

Where to watch: Netflix 

Shamrocks: 2.5 out of 5

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