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‘Big Mouth’ succeeds in a sweet, shameful second season

| Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ivan Skvaril

At first glance, “Big Mouth” seems like a sex comedy merely centered on the disgusting trials of puberty. But then, the late Charles Bradley’s “Changes” plays over images of the series’ cartoon heroes as they biologically shift from childhood to awkward adolescence. Melancholy and sensitive, “Changes” and the accompanying title sequence capture the winning spirit of “Big Mouth” — a constantly surprising Netflix series about the embarrassing challenges of growing up.

“Big Mouth” revolves around the semi-autobiographical travails of preteens Nick (Nick Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), Jessi (Jessi Stein) and their friends. The first season covers the standard body-horror-humor of puberty, including first periods and uncomfortable hair growth. Accompanying the first season’s body humor, however, are the more serious emotional pains that come with puberty in a world of divorce and judgment. And, “Big Mouth,” in addressing these issues in its first season, boasted pure strokes of genius: the Hormone Monster (also Kroll) and Monstress (Maya Rudolph). Crass, vulgar and unapologetic, these figments of the characters’ imaginations proved integral to defining “Big Mouth’s” tone of absurdity and see-what-sticks humor.

Enter the star of Season 2: The Shame Wizard, voiced to purring perfection by David Thewlis. “Big Mouth” certainly succeeds on a pure episodic level, telling satisfying stories in each, but its season-long arcs also prove continually impressive in both their emotional resonance and complexity. In the season, all the characters process shame around sexuality, identity and guilt. One episode tackles slut-shaming with “new” girl Gina (Gina Rodriguez), while another addresses body-positivity. One subtly clever episode dives into different conceptions of masculinity and how the boys define what “being a man” is. An unexpected standout of Season 2, however, focuses on Matthew (Andrew Rannells), the school’s lone gay kid and self-appointed catty commentator. His arc from self-doubt and shame to companionship is exhilarating, and the season’s centering of shame is integral to his story’s success.

But the show’s single greatest target of shame is America’s lackluster sex education. Coach Steve (again, Kroll), an endearingly simple and sexually inexperienced man, proves a laughably unfit sex ed teacher, and the kids often feel more informed than him. Season two’s fifth episode deviates from the series’ arc to perform a succession of unconnected skits about services provided by Planned Parenthood, a Public Service Announcement dressed up like “Treehouse of Horror” and a “Star Trek” riff on female reproductive health transitions to a “Bachelor”-themed competition of contraceptives. But the most impressive sequence involves a wordless montage scored to Deee-Lite’s “Groove in the Heart” of Andrew’s mother visiting Planned Parenthood after an unexpected pregnancy. Not only does it elicit empathy for her and a controversial procedure, but it does so artfully and gracefully. It is truly “Big Mouth” at its best.

Unfortunately, however, “Big Mouth” sacrifices some of its former spontaneity in the second season. One-joke characters like Coach Steve grate when given expanded time. Delightfully odd touches like recurring character the Ghost of Duke Ellington (voiced with maniacal glee by Jordan Peele) are scarcer. No musical number touches the first season’s masterful Queen riff “When You’re Gay.” And, the season’s climax, although immensely satisfying, makes far less internal sense than last season’s ruined bat mitzvah. But, in its defense, season two does introduce many new highs, and, no second season could hope to recapture the freshness of the first. Additionally, several characters clearly benefit from retooling; with Missy (Jenny Slate) acting with more hesitant agency and nerdy exuberance and, thus, emerging as the series’ warm, beating heart.

Not everyone will enjoy “Big Mouth.” It is unabashedly vulgar, explicit and uncomfortable — just like puberty. But “Big Mouth” proves a worthy addition to an exciting renaissance of adult animation, led by Adult Swim’s endlessly inventive “Rick and Morty” and Netflix’s darkly comedic “Bojack Horseman.” Kroll and co-creator Andrew Goldberg deftly mix rapid-fire gags with sex-positive, inclusive messages, dodging after-school clichés by deepening and caring for its characters. Give “Big Mouth” a chance. Just maybe not in public.

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