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Sex Education, season 4, review: a series that once eschewed soppiness ends up encrusted in schmaltz

From Sex Education to Doctor Who: Ncuti Gatwa as Eric
From Sex Education to Doctor Who: Ncuti Gatwa as Eric - Samuel Taylor/Netflix

Sex Education (Netflix) began life as an indie-feel British take on a US high-school drama, but four series on it has got very Hollywood indeed. For its final season Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy, comedian of the moment Hannah Gadsby, Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner-Smith and Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham all put in appearances. The Sex Education effect works the other way, too – when this year’s biggest movie, Barbie, wanted some youth appeal, it cast a good third of the show’s leads (Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa and Connor Swindells all feature). For Gatwa, it was his starring role as Eric that led to him being cast as the next Doctor Who.

The fourth series of Sex Education was announced as its last some time ago, and it’s the right call. The show is a clever reworking of the American teen drama with Otis (Asa Butterfield) the son of a sex therapist (Gillian Anderson) who sets up shop as a school sex therapist himself.

By pinning itself to the framework of a US teenage drama, however, Sex Education left itself open to both the strengths and the weaknesses of that format. The strengths it has played on magnificently – gossip in the corridors, a preternatural level of snark, the hideous awkwardness of adolescence. The weaknesses are that a group of teenagers are almost always played by actors in their 30s and that, as college/university looms, the drama must come to an end (or you get Saved by the Bell: The College Years, and no one wants that).

So it is that Sex Education’s final series is by some way its worst. It commits the cardinal sin of closing the school we’d all got to know and love (Moordale Secondary) and shifting almost everyone to a new one, Cavendish College. Cavendish is a hotbed of new-age cobblers where every student has the right to be seen for their truth. And don’t they know it. All of the new Cavendish cast are irritating, and though this is obviously part of the point – how will the Moordale OGs adapt? – it doesn’t make the do-gooders any more bearable.

All loose ends – will Eric stay in the closet in order to be baptised? Will Adam (Swindells) and his strait-laced father (Alistair Petrie) make nice again? – are tied up by the eighth episode and so a series that once eschewed soppiness and easy resolutions ends up encrusted in schmaltz. It should be stressed that these climactic failings make a great show merely good. Sex Education gets by just fine based on the superb performances and terrific pairings (you could watch Butterfield and Gatwa, in particular, gadding about all day.) But the fairy-tale endings all round just don’t wash: this uncoupling is far too conscious.