Lots goin’ on, innit?: ‘Sex Education’ season 3 has too many stories, not enough time

Illustration of the characters from Sex Education
Kelsey Choe/Staff

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Let’s talk about season three of everyone’s favorite sex-positive high school British dramedy: Netflix’s “Sex Education.” From its humbly eccentric production to its perfectly imperfect characters to its uniquely universal storylines, “Sex Education” is a cinematic cornucopia for all that is lovable, honest and human about adolescent intimacy. It’s comforting, compelling, critical and comical. Overall, it’s fantastic television.

Functionally, the show does more than entertain. As its title suggests, “Sex Education” educates its impressionable young audience on all things love, sex and family. The show tackles themes such as sexual assault, queerness, abortion and gender discrimination, serving as important praxis in the normalization and destigmatization of real-world sex. Portraying racially diverse, queer, low-income and disabled characters with care and depth, the show’s activism goes beyond sex. In the fight against oppressive, identity-based hierarchies, “Sex Education” is able to amplify marginalized groups while avoiding tokenization and dramatization — an extremely commendable feat.

The dark side of this counter-hegemonic coin is that fighting so many oppressive forces at once is no easy task. As the show’s anti-dogmatic narratives stacked on top of one another throughout the third season, balancing all of these storylines while remaining artistically compelling proved to be easier said than done.

The season felt as though it was trying to tackle every possible sex-related issue it could, fitting a large number of issues into just eight brief episodes. As a result, it floundered in comparison to earlier seasons in terms of depth and cohesion. Certain issues were glossed over, plotlines were underdeveloped and unique characters were unexplored.

For example, in the seventh episode, a new, spunky nonbinary character named Cal (Dua Saleh) and the familiar cis-hetero student-athlete, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), discussed the complications that arise when a straight person enters a relationship with a nonbinary person. These blurred lines of queerness — personal and interpersonal dilemmas brought on by society’s rigid queer/straight binary — have hardly been explored within the context of mainstream television. Here, “Sex Education” had the opportunity to dive deep, to examine this friction that represents an under-discussed reality for so many 21st century couples.

But it didn’t. Instead, it spent half the episode showcasing a musical in which penis-dressed characters sang songs imploring audiences to “F— the pain away.” Sure, one could argue that silly scenes such as this one invoke a spirit of comedy — a necessary force in maintaining the show’s hopeful identity and in keeping audiences’ morale high. It’s a fair argument: Without these lighthearted scenes, audiences may not be emotionally capable of dealing with the show’s more heavy themes later on.

Yet the musical scene (among others) simply wasn’t funny enough to justify the time it took up within the broader context of the show. Other plotlines that received far too much attention include a feces-filled sock that was thrown out of a bus window, along with an anonymous long-distance boyfriend and his Shakespearean sexual fantasies. Perhaps if the show wasn’t so focused on covering every sex-related issue possible, and instead honed in on a key few themes and subtopics, it wouldn’t have needed so many breaks for comic relief.

The season fell into the trap of being too obviously didactic. Because it tried to fit so many lessons into so few episodes, it didn’t have time for subtlety. The previously-discussed musical scene, for example, included the line: “I love my clitoris, and I feel no shame. Ladies, get your wank on.” For audiences who are not already sexually enlightened, such blatant messaging may have unintended and antithetical consequences. As the late, great French philosopher Michel Foucault put it: Power is best wielded when it is invisible.

Obvious preachiness as a result of valuing quantity over quality is a common fault among this new genre of “quirky” teen shows that seek to counteract hegemony within short seasons. Shows such as “Big Mouth,” “The Politician” and “Atypical” have all followed similar patterns of losing their spark as efforts to educate audiences became more sprawling and, in turn, more shallow. When progressive shows seek to highlight as many underheard perspectives as possible, they lose the opportunity to explore any one issue in-depth, thereby disallowing audiences to truly internalize the very narratives from the unique perspectives that the shows seek to amplify. It’s counterproductive.

To fix this blunder, these shows should take a lesson from Ryan Murphy’s “Pose.” By mainly focusing on issues facing the Black queer ballroom community, the show is able to give such narratives the attention, analysis and exploration they deserve. “Pose” educates audiences without losing depth. Zoning in on a few key cultural issues — as opposed to simply touching on several — makes for better education, entertainment, criticism and art.

In terms of highlighting underrepresented perspectives with care, “Sex Education” is arguably more successful than most in its genre. Authentic, heartwarming and informative, season three was no exception. But if its writers and directors hope to educate youth in a way that is less obvious, more grounded and arguably more tasteful, the show may consider cutting down on the subplots in season four.

Regardless, the show deserves several rounds of applause for the work it does in destigmatizing the trials and tribulations of intimacy. It would behoove middle school sex education teachers to replace their outdated ’80s puberty videos with lessons from Maeve and Otis — we’d have a generation of youth much more capable of entering the adult world than their repressed and bigoted predecessors. Once it is able to re-ground itself, Netflix’s “Sex Education” will have the power to foster a generation of comfortable and open-minded teens, ready to embrace love for all that it offers.

Contact Piper Samuels at [email protected].