There’s a lot of darkness in high school TV right now. Shows like Euphoria, Riverdale, and now the Gossip Girl reboot are filled with fashionable teenagers who just can’t get away from local murders and scandals. In this modern landscape, Sex Education shines in not just its colorful design but its joyous take on high school angst. Yes, being a teenager sucks in Season 3 of the Netflix series. But can’t it also be funny, endearing, confusing, and above all fun?
After dropping its initial sex clinic premise in Season 2, Season 3 of Sex Education dives straight into the lives and relationships of its central characters. They no longer need reasons to see and interact with each other now that they’re bonded together. But this bond is tested by new headteacher Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke), a woman with a cool girlboss shell hiding an unwavering and regressive agenda.
The season gets off to a rocky start, relying on some well-worn high school dating tropes to fill the gap left by the sex clinic. But from Episode 3 onward, the show finds its voice by digging into the messy lives of its central characters. Otis (Asa Butterfield) reckons with his new relationship with Ruby (Mimi Keene)—alongside the fact that he’s been horrible for the past two seasons. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Adam (Connor Swindells) try to pave a path forward. Maeve (Emma Mackey) continues to have the worst life of all time. Jean (Gillian Anderson) and Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) realize they really don’t know each other that well. And that’s just scratching the surface of this ensemble cast.
But for how many characters and plot lines are going on, what’s remarkable about this season is that it never feels busy. A multitude of characters get to have fake (or sometimes real) therapy discussions where they just talk about what they fear and what they love. Everything is so heart-wrenchingly honest as you get drawn further into their inner lives.
Still, some people manage to steal the spotlight, and Season 3 is Eric’s time to shine. Ncuti Gatwa has been turning in consistently great performances from the beginning, and this season finally allows us to understand not just Eric’s hidden pains but also the full complexity of his joy. While Otis is still the main character, Eric is making the biggest revelations about himself.
This is also a great season for Lily (Tanya Reynolds), a character who has been mostly played as a joke. She’s easy to make fun of: she’s sex obsessed, writes alien erotica, and is unapologetic about what she wants even when it’s embarassing. She’s the “weird kid” in high school, perhaps the only teenage character type that is truly universal. But in Season 3 Lily is not just a joke; she’s simply a person who can’t help being herself. Reynolds has previously been a strong comedic player but here she finally gets to show her capability for dramatic depth.
Season 3 also delivers one of my favorite TV phenomena: taking characters whose purpose is seemingly done, and breathing new life into their arcs. Such is the case of Rahim (Sami Outalbali), Eric’s ex-boyfriend turned nihilistic poet who becomes a wonderful source of comedy. Sex Education even further develops former headteacher Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie), who served as the primary antagonist for the first two season, by giving him one of the most tender and loving scenes in the whole season in Episode 6. The show is not letting him off the hook for the abuse he inflicted on Adam, but does give him a path towards redemption.
That idea may be the central purpose of Season 3: can we become better versions of ourselves? With the main high school cast in their final year and the adults all on the verge of big life changes, the show seems to be entering its final stage. High school cannot go on forever, and soon our awkward cast will have to go out and become real adults. The show understands that some things about childhood and being a teenager are forever, and some things are just there to help you learn and grow. Season 3’s focus on the relationships of the central cast lends some insight into who’s going to last beyond the end of high school.
This is part of what makes Sex Education one of the best high school shows of recent years. Is it technically realistic? Not at all. The show’s aesthetic is a John Hughes+ rainbow, and its backbone is young people having frank and honest conversations with others, both of which don’t occur naturally. But the show understands the emotional core of growing up and being mature more than most in this setting. Sex is heavily featured but I would not dare call the show “sexy”—unlike some of its darker counterparts.
Sex Education continues to get better and better because it knows what it’s about: these awkward, funny, and hopelessly endearing characters that have found themselves intertwined. My heart aches for them because each one displays a different kind of pain that comes from growing up. The show is its own kind of therapy session by getting to see the characters deal with their problems in an (eventually) healthy way.
The first season of the show was discussed by many as being “cringey” but that sentiment is gone in the new season. Is growing up embarrassing? Of course. But it’s embarrassing for everyone. Growing up is only embarrassing because we feel so strongly and passionately about everything. And while dark teenage murder mysteries are fun, I can’t overstate how wonderful it is to also see the complex emotions of maturing done so well on TV. Sex Education isn’t just unafraid of awkwardness; it embraces it earnestly and turns it into a wonderful thing.
Also Aimee gets a therapy goat, and a dog show made me cry. What other series has that?
Sex Education Season 3 premieres Friday, September 17th on Netflix.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.