Television

Big Mouth Is So Good It Almost Makes You Miss Middle School

“Hormone monsters” and cartoon genitalia enliven a compassionate and nuanced depiction of teenage turmoil.

Big Mouth.
Big Mouth.
Netflix

“Cartoons say the foulest things” has been a crowded corner of American culture at least as far back as Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 X-rated cult hit Fritz the Cat (itself based on R. Crumb’s famed 1960s comic strip), but it’s a brand of humor that almost always leaves me cold. So when I first began watching Netflix’s Big Mouth, an animated show about pubescent middle schoolers and the “hormone monsters” who stalk them, my expectations were low. I respected the considerable talent involved, including comedians Nick Kroll (who co-created the show), John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Slate, and Jordan Peele, but feared I was in for paint-by-numbers shock humor and smug envelope pushing. Yet by the end of Big Mouth’s 10-episode first season, which I devoured over the course of a few nights, I came away convinced it was one of the very best shows Netflix had ever made, a laugh-out-loud, immensely creative, and unexpectedly compassionate satire of one of the most reliably horrible periods of any human’s life.

In its second season, Big Mouth, unlike junior high, has only gotten better. The show follows an ever-widening circle of students at suburban Bridgeton Middle School as they attempt to navigate the myriad indignities of puberty, along with their well-meaning but endlessly embarrassing parents. The new season tackles topics ranging from sex to drugs to sex to divorce to even more sex, but the show takes care to showcase the full, incoherent range of tween desire, fantasy, and insecurity. Rather than indulging a blanket depiction of adolescents as reprobate horndogs—a surefire recipe for an easier, lesser show—Big Mouth dwells in confusion and uncertainty. There’s the neurotic and guilt-ridden Andrew, a compulsive masturbator constantly trying (and usually failing) to live the Good Life; the sweet and unapologetically nerdy Missy, who fantasizes about Nathan Fillion and enlists a cherished stuffed animal as her onanistic accomplice; the proto-pubescent Nick, who constantly frets over his body’s stubborn refusal to deliver him to adulthood; and the thoughtful, sensitive Gina, who’s matured earlier than her classmates and is mortified by the attention her body brings her, then mortified by her own mortification.

The real stars of the show, though, are the aforementioned hormone monsters, the grotesque and magnetic fairy godparents of Big Mouth’s horny kids. The two primary monsters are Maurice and Connie, voiced by Kroll and Rudolph, both of whom look like if a frazzled teenager dropped acid and attempted to draw Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things from memory. They are wild, unchecked id, immensely protective of their young apprentices and blessed with infinite capacity for drama. Rudolph’s performance is particularly spectacular, shifting between garbled warble and unhinged wail, all delivered in a bizarre Southern drawl, like Foghorn Leghorn’s Jewish grandmother. “You’re gonna be one of those weak women who goes for bad guys with stupid brains and garbage diiiiicks!” sobs Connie to Jessi early in Season 2, despairing over the budding young woman’s questionable romantic choices.

Season 2 boasts even more monsters, including the geriatric, near-incomprehensible Rick and the buoyant monster-in-training Tyler (voiced by John Gemberling, best known as Broad City’s magnificent Bevers). We are also introduced to the “Shame Wizard,” played by the great David Thewlis, whose thick Northern English accent brings a perfectly sinister haughtiness to the character, a reminder that guilt and judgment come with their own sort of leer. The Shame Wizard quickly emerges as one of the show’s most inspired creations, and, as with all of Big Mouth’s characters, his arc goes in unexpectedly rich directions.

Big Mouth is a writers’ show through and through, the brainchild of Kroll, Andrew Goldberg (Kroll’s childhood best friend), Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin. From a visual standpoint it doesn’t break much new ground—its influences will be evident to anyone who’s watched TV in the post-Simpsons era. But Big Mouth deftly exploits its animated format in service of a profane, radical honesty that no live-action show about middle schoolers would ever dare come near. For starters, there is an absurd amount of sex organs on display in Big Mouth, graphic renderings of every sort of orifice and appendage you can imagine and many more that you probably can’t. The show’s raunchy humor never settles for simple shock or gross-out, though—instead, it achieves a sort of middle school magical realism, vividly rendering the fevered and hilariously confused fantasies of its protagonists.

The finest episode of the new season, and one that’s already garnered considerable attention, is an encomium to Planned Parenthood that’s divided into five parts, each a pop cultural spoof dealing with a different aspect of reproductive health. It’s outrageously funny—a spoof of The Bachelorette that deals with a 16-year-old weighing contraception options is particularly brilliant—but it’s also razor-sharp and genuinely moving. Where a lesser show might exploit such subject matter as an opportunity to make endless Oh no they didn’t! jokes about abortion, Big Mouth instead chooses to emphasize many of the other important services that Planned Parenthood provides, until the complexities and absurdities of the human reproductive system itself emerge as its true object of satire. As in all of the show’s best moments, the joke ends up being on everyone.

At times, Big Mouth’s breakneck pace and frenetic humor can be overly broad or just nonsensical. The character of the gym teacher, Steve, a stunted and possibly psychotic man-child, quickly grows tiresome and commands an inexplicable amount of screen time in Season 2. And an ongoing subplot about the ghost of Duke Ellington, voiced by Peele, who resides in Nick’s attic and periodically appears to provide terrible advice, is just bizarre and has never really worked. (It’s also distractingly inaccurate, with the famously debonair and imperturbable Ellington depicted as a cackling, horned-up letch; one wonders why they didn’t just choose a different dead musician who actually fits that characterization, since there’s no shortage of those.)

But these are minor flaws in what’s otherwise a thoroughly remarkable achievement. When Big Mouth began, it felt like something of an afterthought in Netflix’s enormous and highly ambitious slate of original programming, a weird and off-kilter cartoon made by a bunch of comedians about a period of life that most of us would prefer to forget. Somehow it’s blossomed into one of the smartest and funniest shows on TV and, in the process, has created something previously unimaginable: middle school years that we wish would never end.