'Sex Education' Creator on Expanding Its Scope, Tackling Serious Subjects in Comedy

Sex Education Still 2 - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

'Sex Education'

[This story contains spoilers from the season two finale of Netflix's Sex Education.]

Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn wanted to take her characters to darker places in season two of the popular Netflix dramedy.

After persuading fans to fall in love with Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), a shy, awkward, surprisingly “woke” teenage boy who struggled with his own libido despite offering therapeutic how-tos on sexual health to his peers in the show’s breakout first season, Nunn sought to expand her world and, at the same time, dig deeper into its problems.

What results is another joyous romp through humiliating rites of passage; more blunt, informative sex advice wrapped in comedic trappings; and, perhaps most importantly, a clear message on autonomy, consent and setting boundaries in the wake of #MeToo.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Nunn about the changes in the show’s second season and how she “gets in the mood” to write stories about teenage angst.

The sexual assault storyline is one that will undoubtedly spark conversation. Why did you want to include that story with Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) in season two?

It came from a personal experience in my own life, and when I realized that she was the character that I wanted to do that with I found that sort of a strange combination. It's exciting but also really horrible, because she such a kind, funny character to do something like that to. To then take her on a darker journey, it felt really interesting.

We see Aimee struggle to come to terms with her assault over multiple episodes before the show involves other female characters’ points of view. Why weave that into a number of the women’s stories on the show?

I think it was wanting to talk about the very real experiences that so many women are going through just in everyday life, the fear that a lot women are given from such a young age. I'm looking at, "How do you cope with that? How do you measure that?" I was also very interested in making sure that that group felt very diverse and intersectional, so that it wasn't just seeing Aimee’s experience through one lens because it's all women from all backgrounds that go through things like that.

We also see how the assault affects Aimee’s fairly healthy relationship with her boyfriend. Were you trying to find a way to use this as a teachable lesson for male partners to gain empathy?

Yeah, completely. She has a line where she says, "I felt safe before and now I don't," and I do think that is something that is a specifically female experience of walking through the world and always carrying a bit of fear with you. I think that men don't understand that in the same way, so hopefully, through telling these stories, we can get them to stop to empathize and come to understand that.

Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is a fan-favorite character, and he faces a romantic dilemma this season. Why give him two love interests this time around?

The one thing that I really wanted to do in series two with Eric is I wanted him to have a very joyous story. I wanted him to have a lot of agency and feel kind of wanted and desired and have love as a real option, because I think he went through such a tough time in series one and he's such a joyous character that we just want to see him sort of thrive. So that was a very conscious choice, but at the same time, I think he’s kind of struggling with what his heart wants and what his head is telling him. At any age those choices are difficult, let alone when you're a teenager. With Adam (Connor Swindells), his storyline has come from young gay men that I have known in my life who've had an Adam in their life. So I think there's a real truth to the cliché, but we wanted to dig deeper into that and really explore how complicated that is and how potentially damaging that could be.

How do you keep Adam, a young white male who bullies someone like Eric, a queer minority, because of his own insecurities, from becoming a cliché?

I think the biggest thing I feel with Adam is he's just such a lonely character. He's so isolated and he's desperate to form connection with other people and he's just always getting it wrong because he's not really being taught how to do that by his father. So with military school, the idea that it could have been a really great thing for him, we sort of see him start to get good at something, and then ultimately it all goes wrong again, and I think that that's a repeating pattern for Adam.

Will there still be conflict for Eric and Adam, now that they’ve admitted their feelings for each other? Should fans be worried for Eric and the choice he’s made?

I mean, I hope that there'll definitely be some Team Adam people and Team Rahim people. I wanted him to be an equally good option, and actually, I feel at the end, I feel a little afraid for Eric with his choice. I sort of go, "I don't know. I'm not sure whether that's the right choice for you. I think Rahim's pretty great." So yeah, I think leaving it with that conflict is interesting.

Do the sex acts themselves come first or do you plot story and then place intimate scenes in where they fit best?

It's sort of a combination of both. I go into the writers room with a very strong idea of what the character arcs are going to be over the series, and then through lots of conversations with my advisors and the sex educators that we work with, we sort of come up with, "What are the topics that would be really interesting for us to explore? What are the things that young people want to know about or need to know about?" And then we find a way to thematically fit them into each episode.

How are you vetting the actual sex ed you’re digging into in each episode, besides doing plenty of Googling?

The writers room, last year in particular, was a very queer space. So, it was a very open, free-flowing conversation with a lot of people speaking from experience. I think for me the most important person that we worked with is that we have a sex educator that feeds back on the script, making sure that the right information is in there and that we're not putting anything in the show that could be potentially harmful. So yeah, just making sure that we're getting across the right information and doing our research and then making sure it's funny and human as well.

Sex Education was the first Netflix series to work with an intimacy coordinator. What was that experience like for you as a showrunner?

Really her job is taking the scene and then thinking about how we tell a story through sex. Actually, when I first started to learn about her job, when she explained it to me like that, I was just like, "I don't understand why this hasn't been around for so much longer." You would do exactly the same thing with a battle sequence or a fight sequence, so it seems to make a lot of sense to me.

Were those kinds of boundaries something that resulted because of #MeToo?

I think it was always in the conversation. I'm pretty sure the Harvey Weinstein stuff happened in my first writing [of] the series, but my writing team is majority female. There's a lot of women working on the project and we also knew that we were working with a young cast of actors, so it was very important to make sure that everybody felt safe and comfortable. So I think those conversations had already started, but then the #MeToo movement just made it all the more urgent.

Has the response to this show changed things for you, career-wise?

I think when you're working on something and you're so close to it, you really can't see the woods through the trees anymore. It was a wonderful surprise, but I really didn't see it coming. In a lot of ways, I just feel like I live in that teenage world. At this stage, I don't really have time to take anything else on, but I am getting more offers and really fantastic opportunities coming my way. A few years ago I didn't think that was going to happen at all.

Have there been conversations with Netflix about how long Sex Education could run or how its success is measured?

We won't find out until after [season] two lands on the platform, but I think these characters ... they've got legs. I think I could do some more with them if we're given the chance. [Netflix] is very supportive and really wanting us to tell the stories that we feel passionate about. It really feels like we're all on the same page, wanting to make the same show.