Take a Look At This: Sex Education Season 1, Episode 3
I. The Premise
In everyone’s brain, there’s this kind of psychological tripwire. No, I’m not talking about the one that tells you that you’re in an unsafe situation, or the one that tells you that maybe you should’ve peed before you left the house. I’m talking about the little gremlin in your head that decides how many shitty episodes of a TV show you’re willing to take before you stop watching it.
For some people, it’s a couple of episodes.¹ Other people can’t take it if the pilot doesn’t have a fully realized identity from minute one. And if you look carefully at the corner of the room, there’s a handful of mouth-frothing psychopaths who will just watch television they openly profess to hate.
You might not realize it, but you have an opinion on this, too, even if you’ve never watched an episode of anything in your life. Even off the screen, you’ve had to make a decision like this at least once. In its most basic form, it sounds something like this: How much time are you willing to give something (or someone) to get its shit together before you give up on it?
Look — we might live in what Vulture writers living in a basement call the “Golden Age of Television”, but TV is as much of a mixed bag as it’s ever been. In a world where advertising is targeted with military precision and there’s a limited series for basically anything you can dream of, it’s easy to get sucked into a bubble of TV niche and never bother to look outside of it. There’s nothing wrong with that — the goal here isn’t to lecture you about some ridiculous notion of taste bigotry — but the way our televised worlds are built means that a lot of special, special, TV slips through the cracks of “being a little too late in the season” or “not being accessible enough”. That’s what this series is about — peeling away the plastic to reveal the greatness tucked away in the package.
This is Take a Look At This. Let’s get started.
II. The Premise…Again
To save you a couple hours of expository flourish, Sex Education is a show about a 16-year old named Otis. His mom’s a sex therapist and her knowledge’s rather rubbed off on hi — fuck, that sounded wrong. Writing about a sex show is a nightmare.
Ahem. The plot of Sex Education revolves around Otis taking his mother’s intuition and combining it with his own keen wisdoms to start an underground sex clinic for those at this school who need it.² He’s got a partner-in-crime named Maeve who he runs the clinic with, and a gay best friend named Eric on the side — fuck, that sounded wrong too.
ANYWAYS. The first couple of episodes have been kind of rough. The groundwork’s being laid, but everyone’s coming on too strong; almost every interaction seems to boil down to look at me, I’m *this* type of character! and wow, sex! Isn’t sex hilarious? This is comedic genius! We will do this for every single bit. For a show created almost 60 years after the birth of the sitcom, its opening act feels glaringly un-innovative.
However, lying under all the dreck is something a little more substantive. There’s an awkwardly endearing heart at the center of this show, one that tries to talk about sex and identity in a profound and accessible way, but so far it’s mostly been used as a way to get the characters out of the plot.
Don’t worry — we’ll get there.
III. A Quick Bio
Let’s circle back to Maeve, a character who’s generally not having a great day, ever. As luck would have it, that’s been the case for pretty much her entire life: her mom’s a drug addict, her brother’s fucked off, and at this point we don’t even know if her father exists. She lives on her own in a trailer park, where she has to deal with a pushy landlord³ and is late on pretty much every bill payment a homeowner can have. She’s attracted a nasty reputation at school for being “basically nympho”, but she never gets in on the sex therapist side of her and Otis’s business — she just helps Otis with the logistics because she needs the money.
Maeve’s having an abortion this episode.
Before we go any farther, I want to say outright that I don’t think I’m the kind of person who should have an opinion on abortion. As a guy, our role in the process is that we exist if the woman decides we should exist, and that’s it. “But isn’t that an opinion on abortion?”, you might ask.
Well, yeah. It is.
Whether you wanted to or not, everyone has an opinion about abortion — and yes, choosing to not have an opinion counts. Ever since we figured out 4,000 years ago⁴ that we could stop the process of life, abortion has been a controversial topic. It’ll continue to be one long after we’re gone.
V. The Truth…
Just like everything else, opinions about abortion exist on a spectrum. What sets abortion apart is its divisiveness, and you know what? That’s fair. When the two sides of the debate are “this is a fundamental human right” and “you are literally murdering babies”, you’d expect reactions to abortion to be a little more intense than reactions to whether you pour the milk or the cereal first.⁵ What this all means is that it’s almost impossible to disagree with either side of the debate without coming off as condescending at best and evil at worst.
Beyond even my wildest expectations, it’s this no man’s land between warring truths where Sex Education really comes into its own. Let’s start by taking a closer look at the spiel from a pro-life couple outside the abortion clinic Maeve’s going to, who we see accosting everyone going through the doors:⁶
“Life begins at conception”: Strictly speaking, this is true.
“At 15 weeks, your baby can see light”: This is true.
“Termination is murder”?
…fuck, I don’t know.
VI. …Whatever That Means
When we’re little, we’re taught that the truth is this immutable thing, something that won’t change because it simply can’t. 2 plus 2 can never equal 5; the fact that it equals 4 is the truth, and it always will be. It’s true that the sky is blue, or that you’ll die if you stick a fork into that outlet — no wait what are you doing get away from that thing!
As we get older, people start to tell us that maybe the truth isn’t as straightforward as our elementary school teachers made it seem. Slowly it becomes your truth, or my truth. Sometimes, it’s even our truth. Based on where you’re standing, 2 and 2 may no longer make 4 — at least, not in the same way that others might see it.
More so than others, the arguments surrounding abortion fall into a more complex realm where the truth is almost entirely subjective and facts no longer mean what we thought they did. Can a scientific fact have moral values? Can a fetus understand what’s happening to it? If a baby’s future life is doomed to be terrible, is it better that it never happens at all? We may have our ideas of what the “true” answer is but at the end of the day, it’s just our opinions.
VII. It’s the things that we do so we can get by.
Remember that preachy couple? They’re not having a great day, either. After Otis steps out of the clinic⁷, two women throw a brick of baby powder at them. “I hope you get raped!”, one of them shouts.
As Otis spends more time with them, it becomes increasingly apparent that they’re not protesting out of any pointed sense of hatred — they’re just fighting for something they believe in. Eventually, we find out that they’re having serious issues of their own — the woman of the couple, a devoutly religious woman, is struggling with the idea that her boyfriend led a wild life without her before deciding to become a born-again Christian.
“We all do impure things; doesn’t make us bad people, right?”, Otis says to her in passing. “Besides, didn’t Jesus say something about forgiveness?”
On the other side of the coin, Maeve’s been latched onto by an eccentric woman who’s at the clinic for “not-the-first” time. She bursts through the doors with a snarky attitude and a dismissive air, but as her own abortion grows near we see just how heavily this is weighing on her — ultimately, she breaks down when Maeve offers her a cup of chocolate mousse from the nurse. “I feel way more guilty about the ones I had than the ones I chose not to,” she explains to Maeve, fighting back tears. “It’s better not being a mom at all than being a bad one.”
From wherever you stand, it’s easy to demonize any one of these characters for the kind of ‘impure’ behavior Otis talks about. Are those protestors outside the clinic assholes? Probably. Is the woman who’s had multiple abortions irresponsible for not practicing safe sex? It’s possible. But despite putting itself in a position to snipe at either one of them, Sex Education unequivocally comes into⁸ its identity by instead choosing to empathize with both of them. As a result, Episode 3 arrives at the most unrighteous (and least satisfying) conclusion: Nobody’s perfect. They’re just trying to do what they think is right in a world that doesn’t seem to like them very much.
VIII. Finest Hour
I’ve always been a little enamored with the idea of the “best day” because it enables all sorts of unlikely and unusual outcomes. On their best day, could your favorite team upset in the playoffs; on your best day, could you pass that Calc exam?⁹ The idea of the best day is so fascinating to me because it’s something that stretches the boundaries of probability — all because someone pushed just a little farther.
The most shocking aspect of this whole episode to me was how effortlessly it made one of the most stigmatized debates of our lifetimes seem so normal. In a time when debates about sexual health have been unceremoniously swept under the bed, Sex Education stepped through the iron gates and publicized a topic that we’ve been told should only be discussed behind closed doors. In the span of 48 minutes and change, this show transformed itself from one that’s endearingly juvenile into one that fearlessly challenges the social boundaries of sexuality.
I’d categorize a lot of the TV shows and movies I’ve watched as good. Hell, I’d classify a solid amount of them as great. But even on their very best days, the vast majority of them could never have stood up to Episode 3. Just by nature of their existence, few shows can tackle something as relevant as abortion; of the ones who can, fewer still have proved themselves capable of the care that Sex Education displayed here. It is at once an achievement for and an insight into a topic that will continue to matter for as long into the future as we can bear to picture.
If you made it all the way here, thanks! If you want to read more of my stuff, you can follow me on Instagram or on Medium— I’ll probably post something new about once a week. Alternatively, here’s a link to a piece I’m really proud of.
More important: my deepest thanks to my sister Lindsey, who has spent more than her fair share of time preventing me from being a massive idiot since the day I was born. I couldn’t have done this without her.
¹ This is my camp — I firmly believe that Bojack Horseman is top-flight television as long as you can get through the first two episodes, which are just bad.
² Trust me — some of these kids really need sex therapy. Honestly, normal therapy couldn’t hurt either.
⁴ “Put a footnote here, otherwise nobody is going to believe you.” — My sister
⁵ If you’re this guy, please turn yourself in to the local authorities immediately.
⁶ For the sake of your time and my sanity, we’re skipping “God loves you.” If I start covering religion too, we’ll be here all day.
⁷ He showed up almost an hour early with no idea what was going on. Poor guy.
⁸ You know what? I give up. If it sounds like innuendo, it’s just going to have to fucking be that way.
⁹ I feel like this is indirectly a shot at half of everyone I know — sorry!