Puberty sucks. Seeing our bodies change, hearing our voices drop, watching our faces become littered with a sea of acne — the whole process of physical growth hurts. But after we eventually grow out of this painful phase of our lives, we learn to laugh at the most embarrassing moments of our adolescence. By making fun of the discomfort of puberty, we reclaim what made us most self-conscious in our early days and find solace in how much that experience, as awful as it may have been, shaped us in who we are today.
Such is the relatable premise of the new Netflix animated comedy “Big Mouth.” It’s a show that not only tackles the topic of puberty, but offers as many extreme scenarios as possible to portray it. And since there seems to be no bounds to what animation can offer, the surreal depiction of puberty often leads to surprisingly successful results.
Throughout the first season, “Big Mouth” hits the ugliness and occasional delight of sexual maturity right on the money. In each of its ten episodes, “Big Mouth” both embraces and satirizes the hilariously awful (and awfully hilarious) parts of growing up, dealing with everything from sexuality to party culture to maternal coddling. When pointed jokes about premature ejaculation and vomiting from sexual excitement aren’t enough, the plot deviates into a puberty-themed song-and-dance — there’s a musical number called “Life’s a Fucked Up Mess” in the penultimate episode and it’s scarily accurate. The sitcom is also spectacular to look at, its inventive aesthetics extending to a clever title sequence and an apropos theme song (the late Charles Bradley’s soulful cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes”).
At the focal point of “Big Mouth”’s story are Nick Birch and Andrew Glouberman (Broadway’s “Oh, Hello” duo Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, respectively), a couple of awkward Jewish sixth graders from the suburbs of New York City. The two best friends embark on their own individual psychosexual journeys, developing crushes and an intense interest in pornography along the way. As they confront the challenges that loom over their young lives, Andrew’s hormones manifest into a profane, semi-imaginary monster (also voiced by Nick Kroll), a problem that threatens to disrupt the friendship between him and Nick in the beginning of the season, but soon becomes an integrated part of their relationship.
The personification of hormones as a lurking, sex-obsessed creature is just one of the many wonderful and strange parts that make “Big Mouth” so refreshing. The Hormone Monster, providing much of the show’s childish comic relief, dictates Andrew’s thoughts like a horny devil come to life. What’s even more disturbing and hysterical is how the Hormone Monster inhabits Nick and Andrew’s world as if it were actually real, interacting sometimes with other characters. The Hormone Monster also takes a separate female form named Connie (Maya Rudolph, “The Emoji Movie”) that inhabits the minds of Nick and Andrew’s friends Jessi (Jessi Klein, “Chappelle’s Show”) and Missy (Jenny Slate, “Landline”), who go through similar psychosexual changes. Jessi experiences first-time periods, toxic sleepovers and adolescent alienation from her parents, while Missy indulges her libido with erotica and fantasies involving “Castle”’s Nathan Fillion.
Even with some standout moments, “Big Mouth” occasionally luxuriates too much in the sordid, distasteful childishness that it’s also making fun of. The show runs into issues early on, as it struggles to balance sophomoric raunch, tongue-in-cheek pop culture references and cringe comedy. There are also strange, unnecessary non-sequiturs, like when any character addresses any meta commentary to the viewer about Netflix. Even though these mistakes are minor and the episodes slowly get better after the first few, they serve as glaring distractions from the bigger, more coherent moments in “Big Mouth.”
Being said, when “Big Mouth” is at its weirdest, it’s also its funniest. Take, for example, the fact that the ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele, “Keanu”) is an actual recurring character and acts as Nick and Andrew’s guide to getting laid. One episode’s ridiculous subplot is devoted entirely to Nick and Andrew’s crass acquaintance Jay (Jason Mantzoukas, “The Dictator”) and his sexual relationship with his talking pillow (Kristen Bell, “The Good Place”). Even the parents on “Big Mouth” are given more comedic and emotional depth than the average sitcom parents, thanks mostly in part by the ensemble voice cast of Richard Kind (“Inside Out”), Paula Pell (“Anchorman 2”), Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”) and Maya Rudolph (“The Emoji Movie”).
Through all of its unabashed vulgarity and absurdity, “Big Mouth” has a vibrant heart at its core. If you can get past the insane amount of gross gags and silly dick jokes, you’ll come to see the genuinely touching friendships and character arcs that develop over the season. Trying to navigate the path of puberty is a disgusting journey, and “Big Mouth” doesn’t shy away from that. But watching the process unfold, and knowing how it feels to go through that experience, makes “Big Mouth” all the more enjoyable and life-affirming.