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Sex Education final season review – one long list of frustrations

September is the time for waving off teenagers to start new chapters in their wondrously energetic lives. The powers that be have decided to offer us no respite from this mournful process and dropped the departure of Otis, Eric, Maeve, Aimee, Adam and the rest of the Moordale gang into the emotional mix with the fourth and final series of Sex Education.

Not that they are the Moordale gang any more. The old school site has been sold to developers and we join them as Maeve (Emma Mackey) begins her writing course at Wallace University in the US, Adam (Connor Swindells) starts a new job at a local stables, and Otis (Asa Butterfield), Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) shift their A-levels and angst to Cavendish College. This is an impeccably woke, student-led safe space, which is nice for students, but less rewarding for viewers because it transforms the series into what feels like a vast box-ticking enterprise.

What used to mark Sex Education out from the crowd was the authenticity at its heart. It captured the glee that young people bring to sex, relationships and everything else, and handled their fears with the same care, flair and insight. Their personal entanglements were what mattered most, however, and storylines – from the bullying turned tenderness between Eric and Adam to the bumpy road to attraction followed by Isaac (George Robinson) and Maeve, bonded by their childhood damage – grew out of carefully constructed characters.

This time around, almost the opposite is true. At Cavendish, we are introduced to a bunch of newcomers who never amount to much more than symbols of the categories it has apparently felt essential to include. Aisha (Alexandra James) is deaf and given little to do other than remind people to let her see their mouths when they speak, and later join Isaac in a clunky speech about disability rights. There is gender identity representation via Abbi and Roman, with the latter seemingly there solely to offer Cal (Dua Saleh) the sight of someone further down the road to transition and fill in viewers on the length of waiting lists and the costs of private surgery. If Sex Education were staying true to its early, far more radical roots, it might have questioned the idea of surgery on healthy bodies as a cure for anything, but although it hints later at the potential downsides of relentless positivity, here the rule remains absolute affirmation only. Asexuality is also given a shoutout and, over in the US, Ellen (Marie Reuther), a fellow student on Maeve’s course, is simply a bundle of privileges that Maeve is without.

The overstuffed cast means that everyone and everything is underdeveloped. From Jackson worrying what it means that he enjoyed a girlfriend putting her finger up his bum to the many crushing blows dealt to Maeve, nothing has room to breathe. That includes characters we had previously come to care for. Cal’s story is sidelined until it is suddenly needed for a dramatic finale, Maeve and Otis circle each other endlessly and uselessly, Aimee often descends into caricature – the list of frustrations goes on. And when it comes to the hokey business surrounding Eric’s journey towards accommodation with his God and church, it only succeeds in any way because of Gatwa’s extraordinary talent and charisma.

That is before you add in everything going on in the adult world. Jean (Gillian Anderson) has postnatal depression, her maddening sister Joanna (Lisa McGrillis) is staying, and she has a load of joint childhood trauma to work out. Adam’s dad, Michael (Alistair Petrie), is trying to be a better man and have sex with someone who is not his ex-wife. Dan Levy as Maeve’s college tutor and is woefully underused in what could have been a great turn as an embittered man baby out to crush his promising students’ dreams.

Also dragging down the mood is the fact that everyone – and not just the rival sex therapist O (Thaddea Graham) who is already set up at Cavendish – use therapy speak at all times. Sex Education scripts used to be fleet and funny. Now everyone is earnest, delivering life lessons at every turn and making you long for the days when humour was still an honoured part of the human condition.

The final series has its moments, mostly when it returns to the core cast and regains the confidence to let them do their still-glorious, alchemical thing together. The rest is heavy going and the goodbye less painful that it should have been.

Sex Education is on Netflix now.