'Big Mouth': TV Review

A terrific comedy that pushes boundaries with thoughtfulness.

Netflix's latest animated series is a grownups-only cartoon about puberty voiced by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney.

"Everything is embarrassing": It’s no longer just a mantra liberals repeat to themselves while watching the latest news about the White House. That unrelenting sense of discomfort and shame fuels Big Mouth, Netflix's adult cartoon about that early phase of puberty when it feels like time only exists so that each new minute can present its own opportunity to make you feel bad, confused or both. Sweet, progressive and breathtakingly filthy, the latest collaboration between comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney recalls the emotionally grounded squirminess of the boys of Freaks and Geeks and the sex-positive yet debasement-obsessed endocrinological chaos of, well, nothing I've ever seen.

When I went to college in the early 2000s, I was astounded that several of my acquaintances had no idea who Bart Simpson was — their parents had forbidden them from watching anything as dirty as The Simpsons. I can only imagine what those parents would make of Big Mouth, which is essentially a comedy about a group of horny suburban 12-year-olds whose lives revolve around getting to know their genitals better.

The dilemma that faces four-eyed middle-schooler Andrew (voiced by Mulaney) in the first episode is typical of the series' candor and existential self-searching. Sleeping over in his bestie Nick's (Kroll) room, Andrew avers to the Hormone Monster (also Kroll), a furry green beast with a penis for a nose, that he won't masturbate with his friend sleeping next to him. "I’m a good person," Andrew says. Then, feeling his resolve melting, he wonders, "What the hell is wrong with me?" The Hormone Monster is nonplussed: "You're a perfectly normal gross little dirtbag." 

Big Mouth follows dorky Nick, nerdy Andrew and tart-tongued Jessi (Jessi Klein) as they suffer mundane rites of passage — dates, dances, periods, slumber parties, boyfriend/girlfriend expectations — with extreme yet relatable awkwardness. Seemingly inspired by Kroll's bulging eyes and fleshy lips — the character named after the actor gets teased for his "giant blubbery looks" and "big, weird catfish mouth" — the animation style is somewhat crude but charmingly ugly-cute. It's exactly the aesthetic you'd want for an irreverent body-horror cartoon that's at heart about the innocence of children. Icepick-sharp pop-culture commentary and surreal flights of fancy — in which tampons sing, vaginas educate and penises play basketball by ambulating on their bristly balls — round out the humor. 

Still, it must be admitted that there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about exploring male anxieties about the body. That's why the storylines about Jessi and, to a lesser degree, studious Missy (Jenny Slate) feel fresher and more distinctive. The Hormone Monstress (Maya Rudolph) pushes Jessi to act out in cannier ways than the boys do, and the abruptly strained relationship the girl shares with her mother (Klein), who struggles with her own significant issues, gives the season a poignant emotional arc. "Is there anything good about being a woman?" Jessi asks the Hormone Monstress with exasperation at one point. (As usual, the answer's in her pants.)

Fred Armisen and Jason Mantzoukas play to type as, respectively, Nick's too-affectionate father and a mini-skeeze heading toward a lifetime of self-dooming misogyny. Big Mouth strives to avoid the usual parental wisdom doled out by sitcom moms and dads, but errs with the inclusion of the ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele), a hard-partying poltergeist haunting Nick's house that occupies the outdated wacky-neighbor role. 

Nearly all 10 episodes run a little long at 25 minutes, but with the joke density so high, chances are you won't mind. Even better than the laughter that Big Mouth elicits might be the relief that most viewers have passed that age when each new day brings with it a different way for the soul to shrivel. We'll never be young again — thank mother-bleeping goodness. 

Cast: Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Maya Rudolph, Jason Mantzoukas, Jordan Peele, Fred Armisen, Jenny Slate, Jessi Klein

Creators: Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett

Premieres: Friday (Netflix)