Where would we be if Sex Education season 3 didn’t exist? The third season of Laurie Nunn’s unflinchingly great Netflix sitcom about English teenagers premieres on September 17, a pleasant eight-episode romp that feels shamefully short.

Following a wonderfully risqué opening montage, we learn that Otis (Asa Butterfield) is having casual sex, which astounds him as much as it does the rest of the audience. Otis is still not speaking to Maeve (Emma Mackey) while she spends out with Isaac, despite the fact that sex makes him less awkward and emotional (George Robinson). Meanwhile, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Adam (Connor Swindells) are figuring out their new relationship, Jean (Gillian Anderson) and Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) are getting ready to co-parent, and Jackson (Kedar Williams Stirling) is smitten by new student Cal (Dua Saleh).

Sex Education has always excelled at establishing its ensemble’s interconnected stories, giving each character plenty of love and attention. This season is no exception: it doesn’t forsake Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) after her Season 2 assault, and instead of dismissing Lily (Tanya Reynolds) as the designated crazy, it invites us inside her inner world. A school trip without Eric leads Otis and Ruby (Mimi Keene) to confront their past, while Adam and Rahim (Sam Outalbali) create an uneasy but intriguing friendship. Everyone is learning, growing, loving, hurting, and (sometimes) having sex, which is no less shameful than the rest of it, all wrapped up in a fantastic soundtrack and great direction.

The sexed-up students of Moordale are at a loss without Otis’ clinic and Jean’s counseling. A new “Sex King” emerges, offering counsel that is not only inadequate but also deadly. The students can’t easily get Moordale “back on track” as new headteacher Hope (Jemima Kirke) wishes now that they’ve experienced a school life free of sexual stigma. Hope claims to be different from other instructors, that she’s a cool teacher, but it doesn’t take long for her to morph into Moordale’s Dolores Umbridge, complete with killer lipstick.

These characters have always felt real and lived-in, but now that they’ve been around for three seasons, they feel like old friends.

Given the history, no pun meant, but the Moordale spirit is contagious. You can’t help but applaud the show’s lusty heroics, love overtures, and witty acts of resistance because the characters are so appealing and colorful (highlights include a wall of “historical penises,” vulva cupcakes, and some truly inspired a cappella). As is customary, there are sexual milestones and epiphanies, but friendship, romance, and the value of self-expression in the face of outmoded authority continue to take precedence.

Butterfield, Gatwa, and Mackey are immaculate; they’re no longer a trio, but they’re still anchoring the show with deep, genuine performances. There isn’t a scenario in which Eric’s smile doesn’t immediately paste one onto your face, where Otis’ vulnerability doesn’t disarm you, or where you don’t want the world for Maeve. These characters have always felt real and lived-in, but now that they’ve been around for three seasons, they feel like old friends.

The show’s heartbeat is Otis and Eric’s friendship, while Otis and Maeve’s situation keeps us on our toes. After all these years, a typical will-they-won’t-they could feel dragged out, but their connection in the clinic was one of the things that made Sex Education so compelling in the first place. This always dynamic relationship continues to crackle and keeps Moordale’s lights on, whether they’re crushes, friends, or foes.

Every program aspires to have the kind of character growth and narrative strength that Sex Education has, and it makes it look effortless. That requires ongoing reflection, care, and research, all of which Otis and Maeve encourage their customers to do in order to have better, safer sex. Taking a few notes from the “sex school” on how to achieve that balance in real life wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Season 3 of Sex Education is now available on Netflix.

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