Nick Kroll voices Nick (center) in Big Mouth.
Photo: courtesy of Netflix
The new Netflix series Big Mouth is a frank, very funny coming-of-age story, with a heavy emphasis on the cumming.
This animated comedy about the most challenging year in any adolescent’s life – you immediately knew I meant seventh grade, didn’t you? – focuses with absolutely no filter on the confusing, unforgiving hormonal shifts that make young boys visibly aroused at inopportune moments and force girls to bleed, lust, and burst into tears, whether members of either gender are ready for it or not.
This show is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but more blunt and with a lot more cartoon dick pics. (Netflix is honestly one show away from creating its own dick-pic subgenre.) It’s the outdated sex-education film Am I Normal?, except it actually understands what real kids go through and doesn’t hesitate to show us those things in all their disgusting and humiliating detail. It’s ten episodes of television that could only be made in this format because, as is noted in meta-fashion in the last installment, if it weren’t animated, it would skate way too close to being child pornography. Big Mouth could never be shown in public schools and its content may be too mature for a lot of 12-year-olds. But I also feel strongly that it performs an important public service.
Co-created by writer-directors Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, alongside Nick Kroll and his childhood friend, Family Guy writer Andrew Goldberg, Big Mouth is inspired by Kroll and Goldberg’s own experiences with puberty. To that point: The two main characters are Andrew (voiced by Kroll’s Oh, Hello co-star John Mulaney), a compulsive masturbator whose body is speeding toward manhood while his brain clumsily races to keep pace, and Nick, his underdeveloped, big-lipped best friend who basically looks like a Muppet Babies version of Nick Kroll.
In the first episode, Nick develops intense feelings of insecurity after he accidentally gets a look at Andrew’s penis and realizes how far he has to go to catch up to his buddy on the sexual maturity spectrum. It’s not uncommon for stories of this ilk to focus on the tendency for young women to compare themselves to each other and feel inadequate. It’s quietly groundbreaking to acknowledge that boys often do the same thing.
This is one of the best things about Big Mouth: the way it acknowledges the differences and similarities between the way boys and girls experience this allegedly magical time in a young person’s life. Even though Nick and Andrew are the primary characters, it gives equal time to the concerns of adolescent girls and, again, does so in ways that other forms of fiction have not always explored. (Six of the ten episodes were either written or co-written by women.) In the second episode, Jessi (voice of comedian Jessi Klein), gets her period for the first time. But instead of an exciting, relief-inducing female milestone, the moment is depicted the way it actually is for a lot of girls: as an embarrassing horror show, because of course you get your period on a field trip on a day when your mom insisted that you wear white shorts, and then you have to spend the whole bus ride home with a jacket tied around your waist while you bleed out, and then, to take your mind off of it, you imagine a tampon that sounds like Michael Stipe singing a song called “Everybody Bleeds” that is remarkably similar to “Everybody Hurts.” (What, it didn’t happen for you that way?) Life is hard, this show tells us. But going through puberty is the hardest.
It’s also surreal and a little crazy, and Big Mouth is animated in ways that capture that spirit. Andrew is constantly shadowed by a Hormone Monster, a creature with a flaccid penis for a nose who seems to have simultaneously sprung from a Maurice Sendak picture book and a Ron Jeremy movie. (Like several characters, he’s also voiced by Kroll and, in what I assume is just a strange coincidence, sounds a lot like Will Arnett, the ex-husband of Kroll’s former girlfriend, Amy Poehler.) The Hormone Monster is constantly urging Andrew to embrace his horn-doggiest impulses and, occasionally, breaking the fourth wall to make self-aware comments about the show you’re currently viewing. “That’s a callback to the last episode,” he says about a joke he makes in episode four. Then he turns to the “camera” and says, “You’re binge-watching this, right?”
Because women get equal time here, there is also a Hormone Monstress who, via some musically spectacular voice work by Maya Rudolph, coos and growls her way around Jessi in ways that are occasionally maternal but, mostly, a vocalization of all the things Jessi is feeling deep inside. “You are a woman now and this is what women do,” the Monstress advises during a particularly awkward moment during Jessi’s bat mitzvah. “We suck up all the bullshit life dumps up on us and keep smiling through it all in our boxy-ass dresses.” I laughed loud and hard at this. Then I rewound my screener, rewatched it, and laughed loud and hard again.
There are also regular appearances from, for reasons I can’t even begin to explain, the ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele), who gives terrible advice to both Andrew and Nick; parents who also provide misguided sexual counsel to their kids (Nick’s dad, voiced by Fred Armisen, is the worst offender); and an always DTF talking pillow that Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) penetrates on the regular. I can’t say enough about the quality of this voice cast, which also includes Jenny Slate, Andrew Rannells, Richard Kind, Paula Pell, and roughly a million others. The acting bench on this show is as deep as the one on BoJack Horseman.
I also can’t say enough about how explicitly and sensitively Big Mouth depicts adolescent sexual exploration. These characters reside right in that freakish spot where adulthood and childhood overlap. On one hand, they are grown-ups with grown-up desires and the ability to conceive children if they acted on those desires. On the other, they are still babies who are too anxious about the act of making babies to actually get anywhere near attempting it. (In one particularly sweet touch, Andrew is still very much attached to a tiny pillow he’s had since infancy, one he nicknames Pilbo Baggins.) There are a lot of jokes about penises and vaginas and weird sex acts in this show. A LOT. But there’s also a surprising amount of poignancy, something that comes across even in its theme song, the brilliantly chosen cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” recorded by the now late Charles Bradley.
When Andrew prepares to head to a sleepover at Jay’s, his overprotective mother leaves him with these words: “Remember, Andrew: Be afraid of things.” The kids in Big Mouth are, indeed, both afraid of and intrigued by a lot of provocative things. But as smut-filled as their minds may be, they are also slowly learning that it’s okay to be scared. When you’re 12, everybody’s scared.