The coming-of-age trope has been a classic for centuries, consistently employed in film, television and literature to fill our hearts with the nostalgic saga of maturation. The bildungsroman — literally “novel of education” — serves as a glowing example of personal growth, recounting downfalls and mistakes from which one learns and matures into a better person. The archetypal bildungsroman often romanticizes this journey, downplaying the painstaking process of growing up. For example, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” gloriously uplifts a socially awkward freshman to a life of enjoyment and discovery. The story has its down moments, but they are ultimately smothered by a more powerful joie de vivre. Even “Little Women,” a narrative full of family tragedy and painful young love, is told in beautiful detail and ends with ultimate success. “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Breakfast Club,” “The Princess Bride” — all these classic coming-of-age stories tell us that life will be beautiful if we can just get through a couple of awkward moments. Netflix’s television series “Big Mouth” tells a different story.
Created by childhood best friends Nick Kroll (“Kroll Show”) and Andrew Goldberg (“Family Guy”), the series is a profane retelling of their own experiences in middle school — acne scars and all. Now in its fifth season, the series has developed a complex cast of tweens accompanied by an array of personified, monstrous pubescent emotions. Where most coming-of-age stories show how things might get worse before they get better, in “Big Mouth,” things just keep getting worse, forcing us to endure the extreme (and often graphic) truths of puberty.
With each season, the students of Bridgeton Middle are introduced to a new, frightening creature of adolescence. Although they insist they’re there to help, these creatures tend to cause more harm than good, coming up with new ways to ruin the lives of these tweens at every turn. The series starts with a pubescent bang, and the characters are tormented by Hormone Monsters who suggest “jerking off” as a panacea for all the drama of sixth grade. As if raging hormones weren’t enough, season two introduces the Shame Wizard (David Thewlis, “Landscapers”), a ghostly figure who inflames the kids’ deepest shames, drawing joy from their self-pity. Also introduced is the Depression Kitty (Jean Smart, “Hacks”), a smothering, possessive cat who lays on her victims, immobilizing them to do nothing but lay in bed all day and stare at the wall. Tito the Anxiety Mosquito (Maria Bamford, “Lady Dynamite”) enters as the antagonist of season four, pestering the characters with obsessive, negative spiraling thoughts. Most recently in season five, Lovebugs reverse-metamorphose into Hate Worms, fueling rage and chaos in the hallways of Bridgeton Middle. Sound frightening? Well, that’s puberty.
The coming-of-age trope has become such a classic that we don’t even realize how it disillusions us. Classic coming-of-age films would have us believe that teen years are about riding bikes with your friends, dancing like nobody’s watching and feeling the wind whip around you as you ride in the bed of a truck. The bildungsroman centers on the romantic goal of maturity, often ending on an optimistic note that solidifies a character’s entry into adulthood. Already five seasons into middle school, the “Big Mouth” characters show no signs of approaching maturity, and few show signs of any self-improvement. In “Big Mouth,” the characters couldn’t dance like nobody was watching without the Shame Wizard spotlighting their flaws and ruining the moment. They would never ride in a cargo bed because Tito would buzz in to list all the dangers involved. If one of the Bridgeton Middle tweens appears to be approaching a self-revelation, one of the monsters of puberty sabotages the moment, bringing their victims back down to hellish reality and destroying any possibility of growth typical of a bildungsroman.
While the Netflix series abandons the romanticizing of coming of age, it still employs many of the common tropes and themes utilized in coming-of-age stories. Crushes and first relationships are an ever-present theme in “Big Mouth,” but they are often accompanied by impromptu ejaculation, awkward silences and excessive saliva production. The first kiss is a fundamental moment in the coming-of-age genre, with movies like “The Princess Diaries” idealizing the experience with “foot popping,” orchestral music and fairy lights. In the first episode of “Big Mouth,” when Nick (voiced by the show’s creator Nick Kroll) and Jessi share their first kiss, there is no swell of an orchestra, no arc shot. There is only an uncomfortable sucking sound and a long strand of saliva between their mouths as they draw apart. When the act is done, they don’t share a whimsically shy smile or pull together for more. Instead, they wipe their mouths, Jessi notes that Nick has a “really big mouth,” Nick thanks her and they part ways. It is awkward and embarrassing, but it is real, unembellished by dramatic coming-of-age techniques.
“Big Mouth” allows us to look back on middle school and laugh at ourselves. We are able to see ourselves and our experiences reflected in the show, validating the trauma that we lived through years ago (and that, in some ways, never ends). Personally, I can never relate to the classics of the genre; they make me yearn for a beautiful coming of age that I never experienced. “Big Mouth” is a refreshing reminder that the romanticized bildungsroman isn’t realistic. Coming of age just inherently sucks, and it’s important not to get whisked away in the idealized fiction of one right way to grow up.
Daily Arts Contributor Maya Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.