In high school, I wished that anyone but my crazy, Marvin Gaye-playing, 60 year-old former hippie health teacher could deliver whatever version of sex-ed lessons were required by our often loosely applied public high school curriculum (I’m not joking when I say she played “Sexual Healing” and “Let’s Get it On” as lead-ins to our classes). But it never occurred to me that I’d rather see the facts of life portrayed by a bunch of cartoon adolescents. That is, until now.
On “Big Mouth,” the Netflix series from Nick Kroll, his childhood best friend Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flacket, and Mark Levin, a group of middle schoolers from Westchester are absolutely ravaged by puberty. Best friends Nick (also voiced by Kroll) and Andrew (John Mulaney) lead the awkward pack of 12 and 13 year-olds slowly turning from sweet kids into temporarily disgusting—though altogether relatable—teenage nightmares. Together with friends Jessi (Jessi Klein), Missy (Jenny Slate), and Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), the pair traverses nearly every taboo topic imaginable at that age.
Guided by his very own Hormone Monster, the foul-mouthed Maurice (Kroll in one of his many distinct voices), Andrew is encouraged to indulge every sexual thought and feeling he encounters, whether it’s trying and getting away with masturbating at a sleepover or watching enough porn in one night to become addicted. Think of Maurice like a puberty guardian angel, or maybe more as a puberty devil-on-the-shoulder. Really, he’s both, because even while encouraging Andrew to indulge in what he first believes to be total depravity, he crassly reminds the kid that he’s “a perfectly normal gross little dirtbag.”
Maurice, who appears in the form of a grotesque amalgamation of creatures with a penis for a nose, controls Andrew’s every thought and action, try as he might to resist. It’s that tug of war between body and mind that somehow manages to transmit a universal message: everyone is absolutely gross for a good deal of their childhood. It’s an impressive feat by any standard.
Not to be outdone, Jessi’s Hormone Monster, Connie (diabolically voiced by Maya Rudolph), perhaps only seems more outlandish because she’s just as brash and filthy as Maurice. With two male protagonists, I initially worried that the show would not focus as much on its female characters. However—due in large part to the presence of creator Flackett and a diverse team of writers—Jessi and Missy are prominently featured in every episode. Jessi serves as a friend to all with her brutally honest, deadpan, and unwavering support, while Missy’s effervescent nerdiness is portrayed not as a marginalizing characteristic, but rather as a personal style appreciated by her peers. Of course, the characters experience highs and lows, but in general “Big Mouth” presents a progressive model for the treatment of girls in middle and high school.
A few episodes center almost entirely around Jessi as she gets her first period (in the Statue of Liberty, no less) and becomes aware of her mother’s (Jessica Chaffin) infidelity at her own bat mitzvah. We learn in an entire episode that “girls are horny too,” largely through Jessi’s own self-discovery, aided by Connie and her own anthropomorphic vagina (Kristen Wiig), from whom she learns a few valuable life lessons.
While the physical portrayals are particularly jarring in “Big Mouth,” the social effects of growing up are on full display alongside them. Nick, who has consulted with a Puberty Monster from time to time, has yet to be assigned his own. The differences in development between Andrew and himself threaten to drive a wedge between them, but luckily the duo ends up back on solid ground. Nearly every early attempt at romance ends in a cringe-worthy yet entirely relatable disaster. They learn their parents and siblings are vulnerable, fallible people and that not everybody is who they seem. They question everything about themselves, from sexual orientation to self-worth to how good of a friend they are. Everything is in flux, but luckily they have each other to rely on.
This is not a show that takes itself seriously, but it is self-aware. It knows that it’s raunchy, discomforting, and even that it’s on Netflix. The characters make fairly consistent, obvious references to other episodes throughout. The boys have caricatures for parents, with Nick being raised by the oversharing Diane (Rudolph again) and Elliot (Fred Armisen), who despite their three exhausting children are still very much attracted to one another. By contrast, Andrew has Barbara (Paula Pell) and Marty (Richard Kind), a perennially grumpy duo who must contend with Marty’s dangerous love of scallops, for they just do not agree with him. When they’re not adding to the absurdity of it all, though, they serve as sage advisors to their clueless kids. Like most of the show’s viewers, they have a “been there, done that” outlook on their kids’ lives.
A truly “Degrassi”-level range of issues is covered in this short series. Those which cannot be addressed through 12-year-olds are taken up by the slightly older set of teens comprising Nick’s sister, Leah (Kat Dennings), and her friends. Consent and slut-shaming are discussed via a cast party hosted by Leah in the aptly named episode “The Head Push.” The younger gang gets wrapped up in the party, getting drunk for the first time as they all confront their first adolescent problems. Acting out is par for the course, but portraying it through a bunch of stumbling fictional kids is particularly funny.
“Big Mouth” is undoubtedly a strange show, mostly shocking, but also endearing. All of the outlandishness is grounded in real-life experiences. It shines because it leans into the weirdness of it all, and it doesn’t hurt that it has an all-star cast filled with even more star cameos (Alia Shawkat, Andrew Rannells, Kristen Bell, Marc Duplass, and Mae Whitman all make appearances). It’s impossible to watch it without remembering your own adolescence, but hopefully, it also serves as a reminder that nobody is exempt from the challenges of those painfully—and I mean truly painfully—awkward years.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin are the creators of “Big Mouth.”
Molly Schiff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.