As Sex Education returns to Netflix, the cast tell Shilpa Ganatra how they support the frank and non-preachy approach to the themes in the show.
They don’t make school dramas like they used to, and thank goodness for that. While the shows of yore clunkily took on new topics like Drugs (verdict: just say no!) and Sex (verdict: be safe!), like everything between now and then, the kids of today have upgraded to something far more sophisticated, as shown with Netflix's hit drama Sex Education.
Enter frank conversations about masturbation, a grappling of sexualities, and awkwardness that comes with parents who are more sexually liberal than their children, as played out by the main character of OtisMilburn, played by Asa Butterfield, and his mother Jean, Gillian Anderson of The X Files fame.
Even with its odd setting of rural Wales with American High School-isms shoehorned in, so realistic are these adolescents of all shapes, sizes and persuasions that the first season, which debuted last year, became a runaway success.
“We were actually in New York promoting the first season when it came out,” says Butterfield.
“Coming back for season two, it weirdly didn’t feel like we’d been gone for very long at all. It felt like a summer holiday, and I’m actually back in school.”
Speaking to Butterfield in London just ahead of the second season’s launch, you’d hardly recognise him as Otis, the awkward MoordaleSecondary pupil who, in his side hustle as an unofficial sex counsellor, helps his fellow pupils with questions about their out-of-control hormones, the advice for which he gleams from his sex counsellor mother, rather than his own virginal experience.
Butterfield is dressed in a funky monochrome shirt, with round glasses obscuring the blue eyes that shine bright in the show.
He’s much more confident too, perhaps related to his age as he’s 22, rather than a teen, although “when I was 16, I was also quite mature just from having grown up in a quite adult industry,” he says, referring to his past roles as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.
Buoyed by the current success, the stories in Sex Education are ramped up this season to be extra real and extra daring.
There’s a mass panic as a chlamydia outbreak besiegesMoordale. There’s so many intersecting love triangles you’d think it was a maths class.
In different ways, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and Anwar (Chaneil Kular) deal with the pressure of performance. The parents have their own issues too.
And there’s plenty of, let’s just say, self-discovery. It’s a hoot and a half, with a subtle message that we all bleed red — and it would be surprising if even the adult viewers didn’t learn something new about the complicated world of s.e.x.
“Sex is not something that should be seen as dirty or be kept a secret, because it’s a part of life,” Butterfield says.
“It’s literally the reason why we’re all here. So the more we can normalise sex and everything that comes along with it, the more we can discuss it honestly and frankly. It’s so easy to get caught up in the climate we live in, with things like social media, porn, and toxic masculinity.”
That it speaks to today’s audience explains its appeal across countries.
Certainly, in Ireland, where sex education classes are cringey or basic in differing measures, the show helps make sense of the real world of idiosyncratic relationships, physicalities and friendships.
“I think a show like this does a good job of getting through to teenagers, making them laugh, while also educating them in a non-preachy and non-typical educational way,” says Butterfield.
For this series, writer and creator Laurie Nunn delves deeper into the female experience, with storylines that vary in their weightiness, from achieving sexual gratification to the fallout of assault.
It results in some powerful scenes, particularly an episode in which the lady-pupils of the show are held back together, in a Breakfast Club-esque manner.
“Sisterhood, empowerment and bonding are definitely things I take away from this season,” says Emma Mackey, who plays the troubled outsider Maeve.
“It’s very rare to see lots of strong, female, very different young women in one same room together and see what happens. It’s quite magical. It felt almost quite historical afterwards when we had time to think about it.”
Are the more serious storylines this time around added a layer of pressure on the young actors?
“I’m not going speak for everyone, but I tend not to think about the responsibility and pressure because we’re just we’re doing our job,” says Mackey.
“We’re like interpreters, and it’s not down to just us — we play a part in something has been written and created by someone else, and directed by other people. It’s a group effort.
"We are certainly the faces of it, and there’s some pressure that comes with that — but only afterwards, when you have the time to sit with yourself and reflect.”
Added to that, Patricia Allison, who plays Otis’ supercool girlfriend Ola in the show, notes that the issues raised should start the ball rolling in the viewer’s minds, rather than act as the beginning, middle and end.
“The brilliant thing about Sex Education is that it gives you the responsibility as the viewer to learn and to grow,” she says.
It bodes well for the show that they’ve struck the right tone for this conversation, and with unfinished business at the end of this series, another one looks to be on the cards.
What can we expect in the future? In the words of Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Otis’s best friend Eric, the hope is to “continue spreading a message of empowerment and ‘accept-yourself-ness’.” And we couldn’t ask for more than that.
Sex Education series 2 airs fromFriday, January 17 on Netflix.