tv review

Big Mouth Is Still Going Through Changes

Photo: Netflix/Courtesy of Netflix

In episode four of the new fourth season of Big Mouth, Andrew (voice of John Mulaney) and Nick (Nick Kroll) attempt to hook up with Misha and Izzy, a couple of seventh-graders who, coincidentally, have their own Netflix series called Cafeteria Girls. The fact that the pair of BFFs are voiced by actors from your other favorite show about the awkwardness of adolescence adds an extra layer of comedy to this whole setup, as does the fact that these younger girls are too assertive for Andrew and Nick to handle.

“Wow,” Andrew says, after realizing the girls have lost interest in him and Nick due to their immaturity. “I’m beginning to think we’re not the center of the universe.”

That may be the guiding principle for this fourth season of the Netflix animated series about middle-schoolers attempting to forge their identities and satisfy their emerging hormonal urges. While Andrew and Nick remain central characters — the first three episodes, which take place at summer camp, largely focus on the two boys overcoming a fracture in their friendship — Big Mouth is even more interested in exploring the lives of its other confused kids, several of whom are dealing with problems of an increasingly adult nature. When Matthew (Andrew Rannells) tries to come out to his parents, he is not received with universal, unconditional love. Several characters, including Jessi (Jessi Klein), Andrew, and Nick, are plagued by the presence of Tito the Anxiety Mosquito, a fretting little bugger that causes them to have panic attacks and shut down out of fear. Some of the kids start engaging in more advanced sexual behavior — one episode is called “Four Stories About Hand Stuff” — which allows the series to address consent and ownership of one’s own body.

But the most notable story line in this season of Big Mouth centers on Missy, the nerdy daughter of a white mother and a Black father who reckons with her racial identity for the first time. That effort reflects a behind-the-scenes change; Jenny Slate, who has provided the voice of Missy since the show began, stepped down from the role so that a Black actor could provide the voice of a young woman finally owning her Blackness. In the penultimate episode, the comedian, writer, and actress Ayo Edebiri takes over, a transition poignantly realized in a Halloween-themed episode in which Missy confronts all the different aspects of her personality via a fun-house mirror. Edebiri maintains the girlish quality that was so central to Slate’s vocal performance but brings the pitch down just a tad so that Missy sounds closer to the adult she is in the process of becoming. It is a change handled with sensitivity and real grace.

This season of Big Mouth leans hard on the notion that this moment for the characters, who are now in eighth grade, marks a time when kids look harder at themselves in mirrors — both the fun house and regular kind — and question more deeply whether whom they see is the person they want to be. Appropriately, the series itself seems to be going through that process and holding itself to higher standards. That applies to the course correction with regard to Missy’s race and to its introduction of a trans character named Natalie, voiced by Josie Totah of the new Saved by the Bell. After being criticized for its handling of a pansexual story line in season three, the show does a much better job of portraying Natalie, who comes to summer camp after transitioning and feels disconnected from the boys she used to be friends with as well as many of the snobby girls. Natalie is not insecure nor truly hurt by the way she’s treated — she’s a kid who knows exactly who she is but happens to be stuck in an environment where everyone else is not quite as enlightened, which is refreshing to watch, especially once she and Jessi become allies.

If all this talk of serious “issues” makes Big Mouth season four sound like one long very special episode, rest assured that this series is still as funny and profane as it’s ever been. Entire sections of episodes focus on constipation, the agony of a heavy-flow period, and the many steps involved in ensuring that one can masturbate in peace and privacy. Andrew refers to his series of 17 (!) steps as the Glouberman Method and demonstrates them in what could easily pass for a number from the musical Chicago.

The various Hormone Monsters remain along for the ride, including Connie, voiced by Maya Rudolph, who won a well-deserved Emmy for giving life to the sexy beast who encourages more than just the horniest impulses in her young charges. She also gets some of the best lines in the season: “I like that movie where her boyfriend pissed his pants at the Grammys,” Connie offers when Lady Gaga comes up in conversation.

In keeping with the characters’ movement toward greater self-awareness, some of the jokes in this season speak to Big Mouth’s increased self-awareness as a series. When Missy tries to explain the existential crisis she’s experiencing, she puts it this way: “My mom’s white, my dad’s Black, I’m voiced by a white actress who’s 37 years old — it’s all very overwhelming.”

And in that Cafeteria Girls episode, Nick and Andrew share some thoughts about that other show, which just so happens to feature a randy little creature called the Fuck Gremlin.

“What’s the target audience for Cafeteria Girls?” Andrew asks.

“I know!” Nick replies. “I mean, the main characters are kids, but the show is so filthy.”

“I know,” Andrew agrees. “It’s too much.”

Big Mouth also, obviously, may be “too much.” But four seasons in, it’s still figuring out new ways to make too much seem just right.

Big Mouth Is Still Going Through Changes