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Laurie Nunn Talks 'Sex Education' Season 3

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

What would happen if a sex therapist landed on a school campus to answer teenagers' uncensored questions about the birds and the bees? But of course, there is a catch. The therapist is also a student there, and he's actually pretty inexperienced himself. That question planted the seed for what would become the smash hit Netflix show, a British teen comedy called "Sex Education." Sweet, geeky Otis Milburn teams up with brooding cool girl Maeve to run an unofficial sex clinic out of an abandoned school bathroom. The pair charge a hefty fee to dole out bedroom advice that Otis has picked up from his mom, who is a certified sex therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX EDUCATION")

ASA BUTTERFIELD: (As Otis Milburn) You might think we look stupid or unappealing. But sex isn't always perfect. And it should be about feeling good, not looking pretty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The clinic goes awry and eventually does require an intervention from Dr. Milburn herself, played by Gillian Anderson. Now in its third season, "Sex Education" finds the students of Moordale Secondary School under the leadership of a new headmistress who is set on restoring order to the halls of her alma mater. Laurie Nunn is the creator and showrunner of "Sex Education," and she joins us now from the U.K. Welcome.

LAURIE NUNN: Good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about the sort of inspiration for this. What made you want to do a sort of teenage sex comedy?

NUNN: Well, the show originally came to me as a seed pitch. So the producers had come up with the concept of what would happen if we put a teenage sex therapist onto a school campus. So as soon as I sort of read the pitch, I just knew that this was a world that I wanted to develop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Season 3 has a new antagonist - Hope, the new headmistress. She's played by Jemima Kirke. She's trying to whip the Moordale students into shape, but her methods are a bit - I guess the word is antiquated, right? The kids call it sexist, homophobic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX EDUCATION")

JEMIMA KIRKE: (As Hope Haddon) Ola, only school badges allowed, I'm afraid.

PATRICIA ALLISON: (As Ola Nyman) It's my LGBTQIA+ badge. It's important to me.

KIRKE: (As Hope Haddon) Of course it is. But I hope that your values aren't so fragile that a little badge is all that supports them. Remove it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me about her role this season and why you brought a character like her into this?

NUNN: I really wanted to explore how dangerous I think shame can be when it is weaponized. And I think so many people have had experiences at school which make them feel ashamed about their own sexuality or their own identity or the way that they express themselves. And I think sadly, you know, even in 2021, this is still really rife. And I wanted to, you know, dig into that and explore that. And that's really what we're doing with the character of Hope. And I think she's a very particular type of antagonist. She uses a lot of microaggressions, and she really has this way of making people feel, yeah, quite small within themselves. And the school obviously rises up eventually to kind of fight that stigma.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, do you remember what your own sex education was like? I mean, is this one of the places where you find the sort of comedy and the drama? Because we can all remember the first time someone tried to have a conversation with us about what actually happens when you're intimate with someone.

NUNN: Yeah, my own sex education at school was - across the board, it was just a really woeful experience. It was often someone who was completely untrained, usually some sort of substitute geography teacher who was sort of thrown in and made to have a very uncomfortable conversation about, you know, contraception

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mine was with nuns, so there. I'm just leaving that there.

(LAUGHTER)

NUNN: Oh, my God. That's - yeah, that's even worse. I can't even imagine that. But yeah, there was never any mention of LGBTQI+ education. There was no focus on female desire, female pleasure. We weren't taught about how our anatomy really worked. It was very full of shame and fear. It was, don't get pregnant. Don't get an STI. And to be honest, a lot of the particularly women from my generation - so I'm in my 30s now - I think have been quite damaged by that type of education. So with the show, I really wanted to try and right some of those wrongs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the characters, Aimee, was sexually assaulted in Season 2, and she's still processing the aftermath of that this season. That also came from personal experience, I understand.

NUNN: Yeah. Yes, it did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you frame that in a way that becomes sort of universal? Because so many women in particular and young girls have had an experience with sexual assault or sexual violence.

NUNN: And I think in Series 2, I went into the writers room and I, you know, spoke to the writers that I was working with on that series and said, you know, this is something that had to happened to me a few years before, and I sort of felt that I wanted to explore it in a cathartic way. And through that conversation, it quickly became very clear that every single woman in that room had had an experience that was similar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Precisely.

NUNN: Yeah. And so therefore, the challenge was really trying to find a way to tell that story, but that it still felt like it could fit within the tone of "Sex Education" as a series. And I think the way into that was very much through Aimee as a character. And I think it's because she's like sunshine, and she's, in some ways, one of the most innocent characters in the show, and she really sees the best in people. So I think it was really exploring that experience through her eyes and watching how the world suddenly became a very different place to her over the course of that series.

And then moving into Series 3, it was important to me that that storyline didn't just drop away because - anyone that's experienced sexual trauma, you're going to carry that with you throughout your life. And it's about finding ways to kind of grow from that experience and cope with that experience and live with that experience. And that's what I wanted to explore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That must have been very cathartic - going into that writer's room and seeing that that was an experience that resonated with the other women in the room.

NUNN: It was incredibly emotional. And I think it, in the end, was really channeled into the writing of Episode 7, where all of the girls at Moordale come together to support Aimee. They all come from incredibly different backgrounds. Actually, most of them are not even friends. And I wanted to have that moment where they come together. They support her. They hold her hand. They help her get on the bus. But you know, the next day at school, it's just going to go straight back to that normal social structure, and they probably won't speak to each other in the hallway. But I sort of just loved seeing that moment of female solidarity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is your first major writing project. You were rethinking your career before Netflix picked this up?

NUNN: (Laughter) Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so now that you're on the other side of this and this is this sort of enormous success, what do you think is resonating with people when they watch this?

NUNN: To be honest, I still find the reaction to the show very surreal. I think it's something about the characters really constantly wanting to work towards self-improvement. And I think that that sort of shows a vision of the world that maybe people are not feeling on a day-to-day basis. And because the show is about therapy, it's so much about that kind of, like, honesty and communication. And we're all spending so much time online at the moment, and maybe we're just desperate for a bit of, you know, human connection and someone to talk to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's also very, very funny.

NUNN: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm not going to give too much away, but there's a goat.

NUNN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Laurie Nunn, creator and showrunner of Netflix's "Sex Education." It is available now. Thank you so much for joining us.

NUNN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEENAGE DREAM")

KATY PERRY: (Singing) Let's go all the way tonight, no regrets, just love. We can dance until we die. You and I will be young forever. You make me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.