On its surface, Big Mouth is just like lots of other animated sitcoms.
It has a large, colorful ensemble cast of characters who range from surprisingly nuanced (puberty-riddled protagonists Nick, Andrew, and Jessi) to completely outlandish goofballs (the utterly whacked-out Coach Steve). It indulges in animation’s ability to take viewers out of the ordinary world and transport them to a slightly more unusual realm, usually via its large and hairy Hormone Monsters (who represent the ravages of adolescence). It has celebrity voice cameos, song-and-dance numbers, and a winking love of meta-commentary, wherein it points out the storytelling conventions of the type of TV show it is.
Meanwhile, Big Mouth’s animation isn’t particularly inventive. The show’s designs are perfectly adequate, but its desire to make everything that’s not a human being appear either vaguely phallic or vulva-like means there’s a sameness to the designs here and there. And the animation itself is frequently minimalist — think mostly static characters whose mouths move a bit when they need to talk, plastered against more colorful backdrops.
And yet Big Mouth works really, really well, in ways that make it feel decidedly atypical in the TV animation sphere. Some of that is thanks to its wide repository of dirty jokes, which are among the best on television. And some of that is thanks to the comedic energy that stars Nick Kroll (Nick) and John Mulaney (Andrew) bring to everything they collaborate on.
But I think the show’s true secret is its focus.
Big Mouth tells one story in lots of different ways. That’s why it’s so successful.
The majority of adult animated sitcoms in the US still follow in the footsteps of The Simpsons, which has most of the characteristics I outlined above. Like, think about the presence of musical numbers in so many animated sitcoms. There’s no real reason for the Family Guy or Bob’s Burgers gangs to burst into song, save for the fact that it’s what The Simpsons did and became known for. (At least the music on Bob’s is frequently terrific.)
But many newer animated sitcoms are working hard to step out of The Simpsons’ very large shadow. Sure, shows like BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty have a little Simpsons DNA in their mix — but that’s mostly because everything on TV does. And increasingly, they’re bursting out of that format and trying their own things, whether via increasingly dark and dramatic serialization (BoJack) or a willingness to do just about anything to tell a great story (Rick).
To be sure, I’m grossly oversimplifying a large, multifaceted section of the animation industry that’s only getting more and more complicated with every day. But the reason I’m boiling it down like this is to highlight what Big Mouth does that breaks with The Simpsons’ format and makes the series as good as it can be: Every story the show tells is essentially the same as every other story the show tells.
At its core, Big Mouth is just the simple and straightforward story of how living through puberty is an absolute nightmare. And because its main characters are kids who are doing just that, the show can examine the experience from as many angles as possible. That’s where it departs from the younger, puberty-age teens on shows like King of the Hill or Bob’s Burgers, who have always been supporting characters. And this laser-sharp focus lets it tell plenty of stories that haven’t really been the subject of animated sitcoms, or sitcoms period.
This is perhaps even more true of the show’s second season. If season one introduced the central idea of the series — that the horrors of puberty would be personified in the extreme, right down to one character’s two talking pubic hairs — season two deepens that idea, becoming a surprisingly affecting exploration of the balance in all of our brains between hedonism and shame, between wanting to feel good and not wanting anybody else to find out what secret things we find so enthralling.
Light spoilers for season two follow.
Season two pushes Big Mouth’s exploration of the weird inside of our heads to brand new territory
By the time season two is over, characters will have started to explore a burgeoning bisexuality (or maybe even pansexuality), shamefully been discovered masturbating with a stuffed animal, felt guilty about slut-shaming their friends, and spent an entire episode performing a series of comedic sketches about Planned Parenthood. (I admired the intent of the Planned Parenthood idea but found it stopped the season dead in its tracks, a hit the show needed a couple of episodes to recover from.)
Oh, and the great David Thewlis joins the voice cast as someone called “the Shame Wizard,” as the series also deepens its large ensemble of personified emotions and human experiences. There’s a Depression Kitty voiced by Jean Smart! And Maya Rudolph is basically giving one of TV’s best performances as the Hormone Monstress who hangs out with young Jessi, and she’s doing it with only her voice.
At almost every turn, Big Mouth looks at what happens when whole parts of your brain that you didn’t even know were there start making their presence known and totally fucking up your life. And in both seasons of the show, its relentless focus on this very specific part of life extends to its plotting: It sets up lots of little stories about what the various kids are going through, then sends them crashing together at a big gathering near the end of the school year. (In season two, it’s a big school lock-in.)
I don’t know if Big Mouth is as tightly plotted in season two as it was in season one, or if I just felt the show’s desire to get all of its characters under the same roof a bit more forcefully this time around. The Shame Wizard, also, struck me as hit and miss, simply because the show hasn’t yet figured out how to walk a line between hoping its characters will be shameless while also accepting that some degree of shame is necessary to keep society on track. Season two tries to do both, without finding any real balance between them. (Notably, the Shame Wizard character did finally click for me when the show paired him up with the utterly guileless Coach Steve.)
But I really loved season two’s willingness to dig deep into moments that made me cringe or peek through fingers in horror, remembering the times I spread rumors about friends to seem cool, or felt frustrated over how intimidated I felt around girls, or couldn’t quite get my body to behave the way I wanted it to.
At its best and its worst, Big Mouth is a vivid, excruciating voyage back to a time in life that so many of us would love to completely forget, but laced with enough humor and good-hearted horniness (for those of all genders and sexual persuasions) to remind us why getting to the other side of puberty is worth it after all. By the end of its wildly ambitious finale — which takes the characters to Human Resources, the dimension the Hormone Monsters come from — season two has made a case that Big Mouth should run for as long as it can keep telling painfully funny stories about horribly painful moments of life.
Big Mouth season two is streaming on Netflix.