How do you bring a world as bright and lush as the one in Sex Education to life? It helps to start with Moordale Secondary School, the fictitious high school where Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) and Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) and their friends hold court. It's a place where students swap questions about sex, sexuality, gender, and everything in between as frequently as they swap saliva — and it helps that the production company behind the hit Netflix show were able to find a pre-built school with as much character as, well, the beloved characters of Sex Education themselves.
The former campus of the University of South Wales, in Newport, Wales, feels like a world all its own. For starters, the facade of the abandoned school now serves as Moordale Secondary's front door, and nearly every room within the labyrinthine campus has been transformed into a living set. Posters for school clubs line the walls, and if you look closely you'll see that some have been artfully graffitied over by set designers who premeditated horny teenagers's worst impulses.
Other rooms serve their own worlds within worlds, too: You have to pass a facade of the local mall to reach the abandoned history classroom Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) takes over when she begins to provide sex therapy to Moordale students, and if you enter the former university gymnasium, you'll find the upstairs and downstairs of the Milburn family home, split into two sets but the exact size and layout of a pretty comfortable abode. When MTV News visited the set last July, Otis had just thrown a party, and the carnage was still laid out across the living room and kitchen.
"Season one, it was kind of like we opened a door and peeked into Moordale a bit," Butterfield told MTV News during a filming break. "And now we're fully immersed into the world."
That world includes everything from the very American lockers where students trade a hotbed of gossip, to the small number of mobile houses down the hill from the school that Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) calls home. Throughout the campus are signs that this is not an actual living universe — the endless amount of power cords are a dead giveaway, as are the production offices that have been established in former classrooms — but all of that melts away thanks to the bright colors and impeccable detail that inform Moordale's world.
And then there's the story itself, which pops off the screen in a way that is at once relatable, tender, and hilarious. After all, sex — and discovering what you're into, and who you want most to do those things with — is as vulnerable and nerve-wracking as it can be embarrassing and empowering and magical and funny. That so few schools teach sex education to young people in a holistic and judgment-free way largely sets those people up for failure in many ways. Sometimes the curious turn to Google for help, other times they turn to each other. In season two, unlicensed and unofficial sex therapist Otis asks and gets asked questions that stump even him — how to douche properly before anal sex, or exactly "how" to finger someone in a way that gives them pleasure. And no matter the issue, the physical acts also speak to larger emotional truths — including how to open up to someone, how to tell them you love them, and how to feel safe in your body while sharing it with someone else.
"All the subjects that we touch upon, and the arcs that each of the individual characters have are just quite realistic, and based in universal truths," Mackey told MTV News.
Gatwa agreed, adding that receiving the scripts for season 2 immediately made him excited to get back to work. "I was just like, 'I cannot wait to get sucked into this,'" he said. He pointed to Eric's new arc, which includes plenty of screen time with a transfer student, Rahim (Sami Outalbali), and of course, with his BFF Otis, who has plenty of drama to deal with of his own, given that he has to navigate a new relationship with Ola Nyman (Patricia Allison) and rebuild his friendship with Maeve.
"I really wanted to show off that tension," Allison told MTV News about the subverted love triangle that is infinitely more complicated than girl-likes-boy-likes-other-girl. "Ola really wants to be friends with Maeve, but she can't because Otis is getting in the way, and the jealousy that she feels with Maeve and Otis, and how well they get on, and how obvious that is to her." She added that such chemistry doesn't exist in the same way for Ola and Otis — which leads to a heartbreak that is as confusing as it is bittersweet. "Ola and Otis are missing that little something that [Otis and Maeve] seem to have so easily," she said.
And because many of us spend years trying to find that something, it's easy to relate to any number of the characters who show up — and open up — throughout the season's eight episodes. Because as much as the show isn't afraid to go there, it also remembers to come back home.
This article was written by Ella Ceron, and originally appeared on MTV.com.
Main Image Credit: Sex Education, Netflix