TV: Big Mouth (Seasons 1-4)

Netflix’s animated comedy Big Mouth is so frank and explicit in its depiction of pubescent sexuality that it’s kind of amazing it even exists. Seriously, this show pushes the envelope right the fuck out of the post office, sometimes getting in its own way with its excesses. But there’s also something refreshing about the show’s crass, in-your-face honesty as it rips the mask off growing up in a society that cruelly polices the parameters of sexual normality. Its tactics can be  offensive, but they’re also effective in realizing a mission that, in its own perverse way, is noble.

Big Mouth centers on the friendship of two middle-school boys, Nick Birch (Nick Kroll) and Andrew Glouberman (John Mulaney), as their childhood friendship is shaken and transformed by puberty. Nick is troubled by his late physical development, small penis, and undeveloped comprehension of sex. Andrew, meanwhile, has become a sex-obsessed masturbation addict, ruled by the whims of his impulsive “hormone monster” Maurice Beverly (also Kroll). The friendship is strained by social pressures and inner insecurities, leading to all sorts of embarrassing and humiliating experiences—as well as personal growth.

The farcical humor of Big Mouth can be wildly uneven, a mix of wordplay, cringe, excessive gross-out button-pushing, wildly inventive metaphor, metatextual flourish, and boundary-pushing visual humor and language. If certain jokes fall flat and certain characters grow tiresome, there’s also plenty of genuinely funny and relatable content that leverages an impressive voice cast in the examination of legitimate issues. The treatment is rarely perfect, but it’s usually heartfelt and earnest, and the show continually improves as it spreads its wings to bring in more viewpoints. This starts early with Jessi (Jessi Klein), a tertiary protagonist who brings a female perspective to the mix. It continues on to smaller characters confronting their own challenges, including bisexuality (with Jay, played by an inspired Jason Mantzoukas), race (with Missy, voiced by Jenny Slate and later Ayo Edebiri), homosexuality (with Matthew, voice by Andrew Rannells), and more. There is nothing “after-school special” about the handling of these issues; indeed, even at its gentlest, it tends to undercut its sentimentality with jokey deflection. But there’s a sincerity to its agenda. Should this show be a gateway for young people struggling to find themselves in the world in the face of psychological and sexual self-doubt? Probably not super-appropriate. But for adult audiences trying to make sense of their awkward past selves in retrospect, it’s an amusing and maybe even healthy exercise. A much more interesting show than I was expecting, at first, and rife with first-rate comic talent.

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