If there’s one thing that puberty is not, it’s fast. It’s an agonizing process full of mystery and abrupt twists and turns—all things that feed the comedy of Netflix’s animated series about growing up, Big Mouth. And if there’s one thing that Big Mouth is, it’s fast. Scrub-backward-to-rewatch-the-scene (sometimes at the characters’ fourth-wall-breaking behest), don’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen-for-a-second fast. The speed and density with which the show tells jokes in its second season is astounding, an ideal synthesis of the freewheeling improvisation of Nick Kroll and the gag-a-second rhythms of Andrew Goldberg’s previous cartoon gig, Family Guy. Unlike the Griffins of Quahog, however, the characters of Big Mouth don’t exist solely as vessels for punchlines and pop culture allusions. In their first season, Kroll and Goldberg (who created Big Mouth with Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin) built a surprisingly warm, unabashedly filthy show around a cast of middle schoolers and the manifestations of their adolescence—one that also preferred its laughs hard, rapid, and any other descriptor readily bent into double entendre.
It’s important to keep that “unabashedly” part in mind when approaching the series’ next 10 episodes. Having firmly established that growth spurts, unsightly hairs, and mood swings are a natural, universal fact of life (and therefore a subject anyone can find funny, depending on their tolerance for cartoon dicks), season two of Big Mouth sets out to explore the feelings of humiliation that often follow in their wake. To that end, the show introduces a new spectral figure alongside hormone monsters Maury (Kroll) and Connie (Maya Rudolph) and The Ghost Of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele): The Shame Wizard, a pointy-eared, pointy-toothed tormentor in Dementor’s robes voiced by David Thewlis. He’s a fantastic addition, not least of all because the wizard’s anxiety-inducing murmurs are just right for Thewlis’ villainous purr. He also presents a new and interesting adversary to the kids and the voices in their heads (particularly now that Maury and Connie have shifted into a chaotic good alignment), creating a season-long struggle between the hormone monsters and the Shame Wizard over how Nick (Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), Jessi (Jessi Klein), Missy (Jenny Slate), and Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) see and feel about themselves.
He couldn’t have happened on more vulnerable quarries. The first target is poor Andrew, who’s riddled with self-loathing to begin with, but gets positively overtaken by the stuff when a Judge Reinhold/Phoebe Cates situation with Nick’s older sister finds him sucked into the Shame Wizard’s orbit. Nick’s next, his insecurities about not yet reaching puberty inflamed by the Shame Wizard and a crush on classmate Gina (Gina Rodriguez); the guys’ attraction to Gina exposes Jessi to the Shame Wizard and her own, unwanted thoughts about her body, but she’s already in a compromised position, her parents’ separation lighting a fire that Connie is eager to stoke with petty theft, sulking, and experiments with controlled substances. This is the masterstroke of Big Mouth: That it can locate genuine emotional stakes at multiple points on the adolescent roller coaster, while also making room for Nick to develop an intense and protective relationship with his few sprigs of pubic hair, played by Jack McBrayer and Craig Robinson.
Casting remains another of Big Mouth’s assets—if you want your audience to get invested in talking pubes, even just for a few seconds, it helps to have those pubes talk in the voices of Kenneth Parcell and Darryl Philbin. The Kroll Show team of Kroll, Mulaney, Klein, Slate, and Mantzoukas have been working together for years, but Thewlis and Rodriguez slip right in to their existing dynamics, the latter striking up an easy chemistry with Kroll. He and Rudolph seem locked in a competition to see who can score the biggest laugh based on inflection and pronunciation alone; the phlegmy tangents of Coach Steve and his decrepit hormone monster, Rick, give the co-creator a seeming advantage, but they stand no chance next to the buoyancy of the “B” sounds Rudolph unleashes as Connie.
It’s little joys like that that make Big Mouth such a riveting balancing act, the frankness of the subject matter and the openness of the emotional content mingling with the toilet humor and lines of dialogue where you might get two or three jokes before the actual punchline lands. Season two is sincere in its sex positivity and its examination of how, say, someone like Andrew might be turned on by anything in his general vicinity yet remain a fundamentally good person, but it’s also uniquely playful within its Netflix sandbox: During a climactic two-parter, the Shame Wizard pops up over the “To be continued” screen to taunt viewers into lazily lolling into the next episode; when potbellied man-baby Coach Steve takes the spotlight in episode four, he karaokes over the theme song in a cheeky rebuke of subscribers with itchy “Skip Intro” fingers.
That sense of experimentation extends to the episodes as well, which make two conspicuous, praise-worthy breaks from format over the course of the season. In the first, Coach Steve’s woefully uninformed and inept sex-ed-class instruction is derailed by a discussion of Planned Parenthood, leading to a series of vignettes that play genre hopscotch while advocating on behalf of the reproductive-health organization: a sci-fi daydream making smart use of recurring guest star/crush object Nathan Fillion one minute, a black-and-white horror segment winking toward Peele’s Academy Award-winning extracurricular activities the next. (Speaking of things to watch out for: Keep your eyes peeled for the freeze-frame celebration of Get Out’s Oscar during the opening credits.) In the second, the dissolution of the Glasers’ marriage ships Jessi’s dad, Greg (Seth Morris), off to Guy Town, a scummy bachelor community where the kids grapple with the varying masculine role models in their lives—and Richard Kind and Fred Armisen really sink their teeth into Big Mouth’s resident rage dad and proud (honestly, probably too proud) papa, respectively. It’s a welcome sign that an animated Netflix production needn’t star an alcoholic horse-person to shake things up on an episodic basis.
There’s the occasional sign of shagginess, mostly from the bookends: A premiere that’s largely given over to resolving last season’s Jessi-and-Jay-run-away cliffhanger, a finale that flees to the hormone monsters’ world since most of the earthly concerns get wrapped up one episode prior. But the speed and the wit of the show chase away anything truly flaccid. The show’s demented, disembodied Duke Ellington isn’t the presence he was the first time around, but if that’s the one downside of Jordan Peele’s ascension to major filmmaker status, so be it. Besides, the show adjusts gracefully, retaining Duke’s musical spirit (Guy Town’s infectious national anthem being “Totally Gay”’s most likely successor in the Outstanding Music And Lyrics Emmy race) while relying on Thewlis and the Shame Wizard to compensate for his absence. Big Mouth’s general lack of shame and its love of a good anatomical reference is likely to keep the show from getting as big as it ought to be, but it’s shown that it deserves to be included in any conversation about TV’s animated greats. And the new season demonstrates that Big Mouth is capable of growing alongside its characters.