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‘Big Mouth’ Is TV’s Most Charming Show About Puberty

The jokes are good, too

Netflix

There are shows that make waves upon impact and shows that make for more of a slow burn. The streaming model as we’ve come to understand it depends on both—buzz plus durability equals ubiquity—and the categories are hardly fixed; between seasons, Stranger Things has gone from a grassroots phenomenon that built up acclaim over months to a blockbuster with a countdown clock currently running on the Netflix homepage. Still, it’s possible to see the divide at work in the past several weeks alone. Yes, people are talking about Mindhunter, the latest release from one of American movies’ biggest names, or even American Vandal, a shrewd true-crime parody that nonetheless contains its own riveting whodunit. And yet my personal favorite new Netflix show of the past month is one I’ve chipped away at rather than binged, and screenshotted for my own pleasure rather than debated with friends. Almost a month after it dropped, Big Mouth has quietly shaped up to be one of the more dependable pleasures fall TV has to offer.

Cocreated by childhood friends Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg with the husband-wife team of Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, Big Mouth is about the universal yet oddly under-discussed experience of puberty. The theme lends Big Mouth a different kind of low-stakes comfort than a family-friendly sitcom: as cataclysmic as a first period or breakup might feel to its characters, Big Mouth’s first-season turning points are perfectly normal events. Kroll and Oh, Hello costar John Mulaney lead as middle school besties Nick and Andrew, two Westchester tweens who are, respectively, on the cusp and in the thick of their sexual awakenings. The duo leads a voice cast that feels directly sourced from a listicle of today’s best working comic performers: Maya Rudolph, Jason Mantzoukas, Jenny Slate, and Jordan Peele all pitch in, plus a warm supporting turn from former Inside Amy Schumer head writer Jessi Klein as Nick and Andrew’s friend experiencing shifts of her own.

The first and most obvious upside to Big Mouth’s animated format is how it sidesteps the awkwardness of having actual children act out the indignities and embarrassments of their tween years. The presence of grown-ups frees Big Mouth to get very grown-up with its humor. There is uncensored cursing, but also gleefully explicit discussions of masturbation (male and female; Kristen Wiig makes a cameo as Jessi’s friendly vagina), menstruation, and sexual intercourse with a pillow enhanced by two room-temperature bags of lentil soup. Big Mouth doesn’t shy away from talk of bodily fluids, irrepressible urges, and horniness so acute a particularly ripe tomato is all it takes to set it off. Instead, the show embraces the entire process zits and all, taking a time of life practically defined by crippling shame and approaching it in precisely the opposite spirit—one of openness, candor, and even celebration.

Big Mouth is also able to explore its relatively mundane material in entertainingly creative ways. Kroll wears many hats in the ensemble, including Nick, a pathetic gym teacher called Coach Steve, and a mean girl who’s essentially his “PubLIZity” character from Kroll Show, but the one he clearly relishes most is that of the Hormone Monster, the gremlin-like id who eggs Andrew on and would quite literally fuck a hole in the wall. Rudolph voices his female counterpart, who implores Jessi to pick fights with her mom, wear lingerie, and cry to Lana Del Rey. Together, they make up a surprisingly apt visual metaphor for the mental changes that accompany young adulthood’s physical ones, and a handy comic device to boot: They can say all the lewd, lascivious things the actual kids are too naive or repressed to.

But the Monsters are also surrounded by flights of fancy that have less to do with Big Mouth’s greater project than the writers’ contagious whims. Nick’s attic is haunted by the ghost of Duke Ellington, voiced by Peele—one suspects because Peele had a killer Ellington impression lying around and finally found a chance to use it. (The ghosts of Freddie Mercury and Whitney Houston show up, too—the former to help Andrew figure out if he’s gay and the latter to tell Nick his still-prepubescent dick looks “like a baby’s nose.”) A Joe Walsh appearance is unapologetically tacked on to a show about 13-year-olds in 2017, and Karl Lagerfeld inexplicably swings by Westchester to get murdered by a pony-tail-fetishizing serial killer. Big Mouth does and goes wherever it wants, a lack of inhibition that takes full advantage of animation while pairing nicely with the show’s destigmatizing honesty.

Over 10 episodes, Big Mouth works its way from field trip mishaps (“Everybody Bleeds”) to relationship boundaries (“The Head Push”) to hard-core porn addiction (“The Pornscape”). Though it’s marked by a topic-of-the-week structure that serialization-heavy Netflix shows often skip out on, Big Mouth’s first season depicts real progress in its characters’ awkward, halting journey toward adulthood. By the end, Andrew has dated and gotten his heart broken by the class nerd (Slate); against her better judgment, Jessi has started up a fling with Jay (Mantzoukas), a delinquent with a divorce lawyer dad; and most importantly, Nick has acquired a Hormone Monster of his own. There’s no word yet from Netflix on whether there will be a second season, though there’s certainly more to explore in material that’s too often confined to throwaway jokes about lotion and socks or the pages of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Big Mouth hasn’t gotten the same overwhelming, often-condescending praise as other adult-targeted cartoons like Rick and Morty or Netflix’s own BoJack Horseman, which get credit for supposedly raising the bar for their chosen medium by depicting existential angst and family crises alongside fart gags and puns. Partly, that’s by design: Much of Big Mouth’s charm comes from how the show isn’t striving to be taken seriously. The writers refuse to tone down or mitigate bits like a runner about scallop-induced diarrhea, and if you’re content to enjoy Big Mouth on that level, it’s happy to have you. At the same time, there are real lessons to be learned from Big Mouth’s outlook on coming of age, equal parts knowingly obscene and nonjudgmental. As much as Big Mouth’s blue streak can be enjoyed in its own right, it also serves a larger, sweeter goal. In helping its protagonists adjust to their new normal, Big Mouth wants to do its small part in helping viewers make peace with their own—whether they’re real-life tweens hijacking their parents’ Netflix accounts or, like its creators, several decades past that point in their lives. It’s never too late to get in touch with your own personal Hormone Monster.