I’ve always had a blind spot for animated shows aimed at adults. I like the golden era of The Simpsons as much as the next white guy and I have tremendous respect for the sudden social relevance of South Park. Still, these are not my favorite shows. They are a bit too self-referential for me and maybe a bit to clever. However, as a parent, I’m extremely happy that Nick Kroll and John Mulaney’s gross-out Netflix show Big Mouth has been allowed to exist despite being, on its face (it’s an explicit show about middle school sexuality) a terrible idea. Do I love the show? Not really and that couldn’t matter less. Big Mouth might be the best thing to happen to sex education since parents starting mislaying copies of The Joy of Sex. Sure, there’s the horny, maybe bisexual ghost of Duke Ellington is a recurring character, but the show is emotionally honest in ways that parents and educators fail to be.
In season two, Big Mouth doubles down on puberty and pillow-humping. Rather than making jokes about kids being scared of adult sexuality, it makes light of pre-teen and tween sexuality, which, like it or not, is a thing. Is this an excuse to make a lot of masturbation jokes? Yes, it absolutely is. But, at the same time, it’s clear that show’s creators and writers take great care to represent shame without propagating it. The fact that sex educations experts were involved in the creation of episodes is eminently clear. The fact that the show doesn’t come across as didactic is remarkable.
The funniest lines in the series are usually just when actual biology is just explained very quickly and very well. The best comedy writers let the truth, in all its obscene glory, stand alone. And this is how Big Mouth wins. On the basketball court, in the first episode of the new season, a frustrated Nick (Nick Kroll) says, “Dammit! When did everyone get so tall?” And one of his classmates responds: “When their gland released androgens and hormones, triggering puberty-related growth spurts.” This is not naturalistic dialogue, but it’s an actual answer to the question. Nick isn’t getting dominated on the court for abstract reasons. He’s playing at a biochemical disadvantage. And, yes, that’s a little bit funny.
Besides being funny, it is also the exact kind of concrete answer kids are looking for. Coming up with plain language about what is actually happening inside the bodies of teenagers can be daunting for parents and caregivers. Big Mouth solves the problem by just explaining the science and portraying the emotions, which are so absurd and operatic that they spill over into the comedic anyway.
Big Mouth feels like a revelation for another reason though. There’s utility in it being a sly sex education tool, but there’s maybe even more utility in it being a show about emotional intelligence and the need to teach social skills to children trying to negotiate a difficult transition. In the sixth episode of the new season, there’s a flashback featuring Jessi’s (Jessi Klein) parents a movie date in 1998, seeing The Truman Show together and getting stoned. Seeing them fall for each other in the most average way possible is incredibly affecting, especially in light of their marriage problems. They are betrayed as good, flawed people trying to navigate a difficult situation. Their daughter might want a simpler narrative, on with a villain, but Big Mouth avoids anything resembling moral absolutism. If the show is a morality tale, the moral is this: Being a person is tough.
That the show goes out of the way to promote a sort of cross-generational sympathy is staggering and laudible. It also may be indicative of what its creators see as its value proposition. There is a sense that the show was made for parents and kids to watch together. That sounds like a recipe for a rather awkward evening, but also like a way to jumpstart a much more open conversation about the vicissitudes of love and lust. The show does not villainize people for having feelings. It listens. It models behavior for both kids and adults.
And, yes, the show features a sentient pillow discussing sex with a teenage boy. It’s obscene as hell. But think of it like this: If even the pillow is allowed the time and space to express herself, what is the show teaching? The answer is respect. Will kids learn some bad words if they watch? Potentially, but they might also learn how to better organize the words they already know.
-Big Mouth Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.–