This essay contains spoilers from Season One of Big Mouth.
If memory serves, the illustrated children’s book my parents handed me in lieu of “the talk” featured no singing tampons in the form of Michael Stipe, no references to socks crusted over with cum, no mention of porn or its fast-swirling vortex. It must’ve been middle school, around the millennium’s turn, and the world of sex—if not adolescence—seemed simpler then: Social media’s exaggerating influence on peer pressure lay, for the most part, in my post-high school future, and the dial-up modem on the family computer meant waiting minutes, or longer, for one prurient still to load. Still, we had chat rooms and MySpace pages, circle jerks and libidinous thoughts; goaded by our classmates, my first “girlfriend” and I embarked on a relationship, shared a first kiss, and decided to end things in the space of a single field trip. In other words, I wish I’d had Big Mouth, which covers this rocky terrain (and much more besides) in the terms of a teenager, reaching awkwardly, uncertainly, fearfully for adulthood: As Andrew Glouberman’s (John Mulaney) Hormone Monster (Nick Kroll) assures him when he masturbates at a sleepover, “You’re a perfectly normal gross little dirtbag.” Aren’t we all?
Netflix’s new animated series, from creators Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, follows four friends through the earliest stages of puberty: Andrew sports inconvenient erections; Nick (Kroll) awaits his first pubic hairs; Jessi (Jessi Klein) begins menstruating at the Statue of Liberty; Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) conceives rococo ways to get off with his pillow. It’s wickedly bawdy—one episode’s end credits roll over an extended description of Andrew’s dad’s testicles—and devilishly funny—another uses a note-perfect Seinfeld send-up to explain the blowjob “head push” and the term “mons pubis”—but as implied by its theme song, Charles Bradley’s “Changes,” the series is sweeter than it appears at first blush. Its goal, as I see it, is to cut through the humiliations of sex, to break through the shame shellacked atop our gross little dirtbag selves to reveal the perfectly normal yearning underneath: for pleasure, for touch, for emotional connection; for approval, confidence, intimacy, love. By admitting, as Andrew does in the series premiere, that “everything is so embarrassing”—and not only for teens—Big Mouth squares a space in which there’s no question that can’t be asked, and no answer that applies the same way to everyone. It’s the streaming version of your sex-ed teacher’s anonymous slips of paper, except the laughs aren’t sniggers—they’re hard-won, empathic guffaws.
Instrumental in this are Andrew’s Hormone Monster and Jessi’s Hormone Monstress (the uproarious Maya Rudolph, following up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Dionne Warwick with her second scene-stealing turn of the year), fantastical representations of our glandular Id reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are. As a friend said to me of Big Mouth, the series “rehabilitates” puberty, in part by reminding us that the frightful creatures we see in the mirror at 13 or 16 or even 30 are shadowed by our Hormone Monsters—shaping our actions, our bodies, even ourselves without necessarily defining them. After all, when Jessi’s Monstress arrives on the night of her first period, she speaks in the imperative. “You want to shoplift lipstick,” she commands, pushing her charge against the wall. “You want to listen to Lana Del Rey on repeat while you cut up all your T-shirts. You want to scream at your mother and then laugh at her tears!” It’s a remarkably knowing rendering of the terrifying power of particular molecules, made humorous by Rudolph’s inimitable voice: Our hormones are always urging us on, berating, tempting, needling, persuading, and from this biological process we discover one of life’s great pleasures and more than a few of its pains.
Displacing the instincts and emotions that cascade from our pituitaries onto these beasts, turning up at inopportune moments to whisper in our ears, Big Mouth does more to universalize the experience than any picture book—even now, I hear an echo of my own Hormone Monstress in the line “This boy’s a tall, lumpy-dumpy drink of water, and we are thirsty,” directed at the nerdy, nervous Missy (Jenny Slate) before her first kiss with Andrew. As it proceeds, the season shifts from the faintly educational, including a terrific sequence in which Jessi “meets” her genitals—a much better anatomy lesson than I ever received in sex ed—to the forthrightly emotional, turning its attention to the adults in the room. To extrapolate from the one example we’re privy to, their Hormone Monsters are frailer, grayer, perhaps more easily wrestled with, but that fundamental yearning remains—for pleasure, for touch, for emotional connection; for approval, confidence, intimacy, love. In fact, the season’s climactic musical number, “Life Is a Fucked-Up Mess”—one worthy of BoJack Horseman or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—is run through with disappointments that can’t be blamed wholly on hormones: The “shit show” it describes is comprised of choices, those we make and those we don’t, of all the ways we relent when we’re pushed up against the wall, most especially when we’re old enough to know better.
This is the insight at the center of Big Mouth, in which the Hormone Monster is not a mirror image of the self, but an exhilarating, enticing, embarrassing, exhausting part of that self, one we’re always learning to steer clear of or channel, accept or resist. As Andrew’s Monster warns in the season finale, the point at which the beautiful aspects of our bodies—ourselves—begin to turn ugly is when decision becomes compulsion, when we cease to consider the consequences of acting on impulse. At 13 or 16 or even 30, this is no simple task, but as Netflix’s next great animated series suggests, it’s not an impossible one. “We’re all out of control,” the Monster says at one point, during a sort of hormonal apocalypse, though as it turns out it’s only a (wet) dream: For Andrew, Nick, Jessi and Jay, as for those of us to whom adolescence is merely a memory, the real imperative is the self-awareness Big Mouth betrays when it breaks the fourth wall—the acknowledgement that being a gross little dirtbag is perfectly normal, and the understanding this isn’t all we are, or were, or will be.
Big Mouth is now streaming on Netflix.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.