[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 4 of Sex Education. Read at your own risk!]
Every high school show reaches an inevitable moment when it finally has to grow up. From the beginning, Sex Education had the advantage of already feeling quite mature; it dealt with teenage sexuality in bold, frank, and gleefully vulgar ways. Its characters still had plenty to learn about their bodies and urges and relationships, but the series was careful to never patronize them, or the audience. It used Otis' (Asa Butterfield) burgeoning sex therapy clinic as a method of teaching provocative lessons without treading into after school special territory. What helped was that Otis' lessons were never perfect — he was learning at the same time his peers were, even as he tried to counsel them. Its John Hughes-inspired aesthetic afforded it a texture that felt thrillingly dirty, like an actual high school overflowing with horny teens. It felt ballsy (no pun intended) and exciting. That's what makes it such a shame to watch Sex Education lose its edge in its overstuffed slog of a final season, which lands with a whimper rather than a bang.
After the events of Season 3, which ended with Moordale Secondary being sold to developers, a whittled down group of students find themselves beginning Season 4 at the peppy, colorful, and socially conscious Cavendish Sixth Form College. Here, biking to class is the norm, slides replace stairs, and a trio of queer kids sit at the top of the social hierarchy. Some characters, like the once-popular Ruby (Mimi Keene), are left unmoored after so much change, while others, like Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), quickly begin to thrive in a more accepting environment. Some have begun forging their own paths, like Maeve (Emma Mackey), who is now going to school in America (and being taught by Dan Levy), and Adam (Connor Swindells), who has dropped out and is continuing to navigate his reinvention journey.
It's clear from the jump that Sex Education wanted to explore a reinvention of its own for these final eight episodes, but it's frustrating to see it lose its willingness to be uncomfortable. What was once a show that felt nimble and boundary-pushing now plays it entirely safe, indulging in empty "representation" for representation's sake. If the early seasons prioritized the characters, allowing all lessons to be filtered through their arcs, the show now puts feel-good lessons ahead of good character work. Of course, trying to represent everyone typically has an end result of no one actually being properly represented, which is the whole problem here: Aisha (Alexandra James), a newly introduced deaf character, is given little to do other than offer platitudinous explanations of her disability to others; Otis' new sex therapy rival, O (Thaddea Graham), is asexual, but even the show doesn't seem too enthused about diving any deeper into this element of such a one-note character. Few storylines have room to breathe: Jackson's (Kedar Williams-Stirling) sexual exploration is halted by an underbaked cancer plot, and poor Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) is reduced to a juiceless, shoehorned romance with Isaac (George Robinson). Gatwa continues to be the show's MVP, but Eric's convoluted story, which concludes with his decision in the finale to become a pastor, does a disservice to his always buoyant performance. (How depressing to see his relationship with Adam, one of the best things about the earlier seasons, cast aside with a line like, "I know we weren't right for each other.") And the less said about Jean (Gillian Anderson), who for some reason begins an And Just Like That…-esque radio hosting gig shortly after giving birth, the better.
It doesn't help that absolutely every person who populates this world, at some point, started speaking exclusively in therapy-approved language. ("You don't get to be the gatekeeper of my dreams," Maeve tells Levy's professor at one point, which is the kind of dialogue you can now expect to hear on this show.) Every single character indulges in overly earnest, falsely empowering monologues. While the generational divide between the kids and the adults was once one of the things Sex Education did best, now there is no difference between the way the younger and older characters speak. It's that brand of internet-approved, emptily progressive language that the show was always better for avoiding. What conflict can be found within a show where everyone is always saying the "right" thing? What lessons are left to teach?
Not many, it turns out. The thing is, Sex Education was already a progressive show. It didn't need any help in that department. You long for the earlier seasons, when Aimee's sexual assault was treated with sensitivity and respect, and Eric's struggle to balance his queerness and his family's expectations for him was more thoughtfully constructed. The final season isn't all bad — it has its bright spots, getting off some good jokes and sweet moments, but it's not enough to make it a worthy send-off. When you know how good Sex Education can be, it's hard to feel satisfied settling for a ghost of its former self.
Sex Education Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix.