It’s spring in New Jersey, and the students of Bridgeton Middle School are contending with the fallout from their St. Valentine’s Day massacre, along with hassles any adolescent might face: test anxiety, sexual insecurity, navigating the niceties of incest, being Home Aloned. That’s right: Big Mouth is back, bigger and mouthier than ever, just as shameless and even more magical.
On paper, the first acts of episodes like “Girls Are Angry Too,” “Obsessed,” and “Rankings” sound like standard cautionary tales: A sexist dress code prompts the girls to protest, a tween can’t bear to part with his new phone, the boys evaluate the “hottest” girls. In a few episodes, for a few minutes, it feels as if creators Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin, along with their writers room, might be running dry, as their characters start off mouthing well-trodden rhetorical points.
But like the damp, demanding imaginations of its protagonists, this show never runs dry. Instead of following the didactic beats of a Very Special Episode, Big Mouth excels in setting up situations and reveling as they spiral in every messy direction. In “Girls Are Angry Too,” which gets the season rolling, the action begins with few surprises as Jessi (Jessi Klein), Missy (Jenny Slate), Devin (June Diane Raphael), and “the filthy tweenage girls of Bridgeton Middle” counter their teacher’s scrutiny with a Slut Walk. But the accompanying musical number barely gets going before the simplistic arguments and jaunty lyrics blow up in an explosion of frustration and anger. It’s a hilarious, lightning-fast descent from fun fantasy empowerment into cruel vulnerability, and an uncanny mimicking of the emotional, physical, and social roller coaster of puberty.
Some of the situations Big Mouth presents are familiar, and some questions are universal: Is it okay to have a crush on your best friend’s ex? Is it okay to want to kiss girls and boys, “and anyone in between”? Is it okay to covertly film your family members for viral fame? Is it okay to kiss your cousin? Is it okay for two children to get married? IS IT OKAY TO PULL YOUR EX-GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND OUT OF HIS WHEELCHAIR? Some of these dilemmas are more universal than others, and some have clearer answers.
In the words and voices of Big Mouth’s writers and their outstanding assembly of voice actors, what all these questions have in common is their complexity. Even the most absurd, abstract scenarios feel not just personal, but intimate… and intimacy can be uncomfortable. Big Mouth fearlessly pushes that intimacy, and that discomfort, in episodes like “How To Have An Orgasm,” where hormone monster Maury (Kroll) talks Andrew (John Mulaney) into a pantsless photo session, with the resulting frames of blurry, blushing boy parts popping up unexpectedly in his family’s shared cloud—and in corners of the viewer’s screen.
Occasionally, that complexity breaks down. The introduction of new student Ali (Ali Wong) feels like the speech it is, and her impromptu lesson on the meaning of “pansexual” oversimplifies the relationship between private parts and gender identity. But her very existence as a character puts Big Mouth ahead of most television representations of sexual expression. Jay’s continued exploration of his enthusiastic bisexuality (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas with insatiable intensity and poignant hesitation) is as irrepressible as a math-class boner, and Matthew (Andrew Rannells) meets again, and again, with his crush from “My Furry Valentine” (Aiden, voiced by Zachary Quinto)—but crucially, each tween’s sexual orientation is no more defining than their growth spurts or, uh, other spurts.
With its rich, pervasive raunchiness, and its willingness to plumb the depths of adult relationships as well as the complex “politics of childhood,” Big Mouth is unabashedly and unreservedly for adults, and accordingly it dances on the edge of feeling out of control. But whether you’re on a roller coaster or on the emotional tightrope Big Mouth walks in its most difficult moments, it’s more fun to feel out of control than to be out of control. A late-season subplot shows how well Big Mouth’s writers judge the distance between shameless and reckless, letting us wonder just how dark the subject matter will get before showing its excellent judgment and ability to create profound tension without manufacturing gratuitous drama.
Big Mouth takes time in its third season (with at least three more confirmed) to reach beyond its familiar, filthy world. There are plenty of detours: a lyrical trip to the past with the ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele), a spring break vacation to Florida (a.k.a. “America’s glory hole”), a dive into the seediness (and preposterously prescient male paranoia) of 1994’s Disclosure. Keep your ears pricked for the voices of Martin Short, Carol Kane, and Queer Eye’s Fab Five, as well as new cast members like Thandie Newton, whose Hormone Monstress has a gravelly, avid voice that rivals even The A.V. Club’s 2018 TV MVP, Maya Rudolph. But these new episodes never lose sight of the characters at their squirmy, compassionate heart.
One of the season’s most satisfying tangents involves Jay’s palpable delight in a niche show (about a Canadian man on an emotional and sexual journey through Canada’s sex-positive stage-magic community) is contagious, because we all know what it’s like to find a show that feels personal. Big Mouth can feel like that—like it was crafted just for you. That’s because it embraces every subject, every shame, every isolating, embarrassing impulse as if it were a universal experience. This show is unabashedly frank about our appetites, and not just the sexual ones. Like Jay’s increasingly deft attempts at close-up magic, Big Mouth keeps pulling off a neat piece of prestidigitation. It shuffles together the thrills, pressures, humiliations, horrors, and unmatched joys of youth and love and self-loathing and dawning self-knowledge, then with a simple piece of misdirection, it shows us just the card we need to see.