Big Mouth was destined to be a hit.
The Netflix animated series, created by comedians Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg (real-life childhood friends whom the main characters are named for and based on), has a likeable ensemble cast, whip smart humor, original musical numbers, otherworldly elements that only animation can deliver (including the insane ghost of Duke Ellington voiced by Jordan Peele), and a plot—a group of middle school friends who are stumbling through the first bouts of puberty—that virtually everyone who’s watching can relate to on a cringe-inducing personal level.
Even more, Big Mouth personifies the inevitable emotional chaos inside the cartoon kids’ heads with the Hormone Monsters, voiced to perfection by Kroll and Maya Rudolph, allowing every confused, misguided, dirty thought to become open dialogue for everyone to hear. It’s brazen and raunchy (sometimes to a turn-down-the-volume-or-your-roommates-will-think-it’s-porn level), but it’s also steeped in genuine care for the plight of adolescents.
But because the Hormone Monsters are separate from the kids, rather than, say, an Inside Out sort of deal, the main cast—Nick (Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), Jessi (Jessi Klein), Missy (Jenny Slate), and Jay (Jason Mantzoukas)—gets off too easy in season 1. Animated characters often have moments when they seem too mature for the reality of the situation, usually for the sake of a joke, but the Big Mouth world clearly has consequences that shows like Family Guy and South Park ignore (like in season 1 when Jessi’s mom’s casual dig at her husband, “You’re a lemon, Greg,” turns into a long-term divorce storyline a few episodes later). It’s clear Kroll and his team know that when hurricanes of puberty ravage impressionable children, serious self-loathing usually comes next. And Big Mouth season 2 (now streaming) delivers on exactly that: Enter the Shame Wizard, an emaciated, floating, Voldemort-adjacent creature voiced by Harry Potter’s own David Thewlis. The Shame Wizard is a more insidious figure than the Hormone Monsters, slipping between real life and the inside of the kids’ heads. In episode 3, when the Shame Wizard plays judge and jury and tries Andrew after he is caught masturbating in front of Nick’s sister’s swimsuit, every Shame Wizard in the room morphs into Andrew himself, chanting “Guilty!” at him as he sends himself into an internal tailspin.
Not only does the appearance of the Shame Wizard reinforce the Hormone Monsters’ positions as good-hearted, albeit impulsive, advocates for the teens, but it drives season 2’s central message: You are not alone.
It’s an idea Big Mouth has hinted at before, but season 2 drastically illuminates these four existentially comforting words as it progresses. In the two-part climax (pun intended) that spans episodes 8 and 9, the characters are thrown together in the school gym for an overnight lunar eclipse viewing, and, in the classic fashion of tightly-plotted serials, several storylines collide, superimposing upon themselves to reveal the big picture. The Shame Wizard torments everyone; even Big Mouth newcomer Gina (Gina Rodriguez), the first girl in the grade to develop breasts, gets slut shamed by him after her class finds out she let Nick get to second base. By episode 9, Big Mouth’s humor is tangled in some pretty dark themes, but once the kids admit to each other that they’re all haunted by the ghoulish demon, the Shame Wizard is all but defeated.
Big Mouth is a meta show, not just in its fourth wall-breaking jokes, but in its existence. Season 1 sets up the show as a nostalgic look at middle school for viewers to laugh at together and recall their own pubescence, but season 2 takes a more all-encompassing stance and becomes a show not just about puberty, but about transition in general. Big Mouth is an endlessly empathetic reminder that everyone is confused, shocked, horrified, and in awe of life pretty much always, especially in times when life’s foundation seems shaky.
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Season 2’s themes of desire, fear, shame, and friendship are so ingrained in the human experience that the plot becomes relatively predictable; not because its writers are unimaginative, but because it’s just the way life goes.
Nearly all of Big Mouth’s main characters are multi-dimensional in all ways except their animation, but season 2 reveals Jessi to be possibly the most substantive. Even episode 5, the well-intentioned yet stagnant pro-Planned Parenthood variety show, which reveals how Nick, Andrew, and Jessi’s respective parents coupled up, moves Jessi’s storyline along: she sinks deeper into her belief that she’s to blame for her parents’ split, and soon enough, she trades in her loyal Hormone Monstress for the manipulative Depression Kitty. Depression, of course, affects more than just middle schoolers with raging hormones, and Big Mouth once again grounds its characters in typical scenarios like puberty, drama at school, and divorce, while reminding its viewers that other people out there understand those intangible but widely felt experiences (as Andrew says in episode 10 when he and Nick hunt for Jessi in the Depression Ward inside the Department of Puberty, “Oh my god, there are a billion rooms in here!”).
Despite all the undertones and messages (some of which, like the Planned Parenthood episode and the Shame Wizard’s pointed insult to Jessi, “You know how I can tell when you’re lying? You look like Mitch McConnell,” are not as subtle as others), much of Big Mouth’s absurdities are just for laughs, as with any great comedy. Some hit, like the ridiculous joke that DeVon is an undergrown old man or the weirdness that is Nick’s dad, brought to life by Fred Armisen’s inherently hilarious voice. Others miss the mark, like Rick, Nick’s dilapidated, subtitled Hormone Monster who doesn’t bring much more than the catchphrase, “What you gonna do?” to the show; luckily, however, the writers had enough sense to fade him out, literally, mid-season.
Even with its piercing wit, Big Mouth still has moments in which it struggles to find solid ground in season 2. Nick’s pubescent fate still remains unclear, and the Shame Wizard returns in the final episode after his “defeat” as a humanized character with personal issues of his own. While these loose ends somewhat unravel the satisfaction of such a purposeful second season, I’ll argue that the writers know what they’re doing. Big Mouth has not yet been renewed for season 3, but with the acclaim both seasons have received, it’s safe to say a third season is likely. Now 20 episodes strong, Big Mouth has proven that it is paying attention to its strengths and weaknesses. Kroll didn’t let Nick and the gang act on every horny whim without a realistic dose of shame after season 1, and season 2 leaves questions that the next 10 episodes will most likely tackle with the humor and wisdom that makes Big Mouth so good. And hopefully, it will remain a warm reminder that life, for everyone, is as surreal as a fantastical cartoon about horny 13-year-olds. A-