It’s ironic that season five of the animated Netflix hit Big Mouth begins with a voiceover narration from Andrew Glouberman (John Mulaney), doing a parody of Goodfellas (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to jerk off,” he reminisces). The hapless Jewish nerd is actually more of a supporting character this season than a lead—and even more surprising, he’s arguably become the most emotionally mature kid of them all.
In some ways, this new batch of Big Mouth episodes sees the most significant evolution in the show yet, with a season that features the kids learning about love—and how easily it can curdle into its immature flip side, hate—while steadily advancing through the stages of adolescence as they approach their high school years. But in all the ways that matter, Big Mouth stays true to the spirit and style that has guided it all along, with gleefully foul-mouthed brio and outrageous scatological and sexual humor that continually rides the fine line between ain’t-we-stinkers silliness and crudity that can become tiresome with its “all gross all the time” zeal.
Season five finds each of its main characters, having endured the initial travails of puberty, struggling to better understand themselves and their rapidly expanding palette of feelings. But after a fourth season that largely focused on knotty questions of representation and identity, here the focus is back where it began: on sex, intimacy, and all the ways it’s easier for teenage romance to go wrong than right. And, yes, plenty of masturbation—the topic remains the show’s go-to resource for jokes, but as the premiere makes clear, the activity is old hat for everyone at Bridgeton Middle School by this point. Far more exciting—and overwhelming—is the idea of love.
Eros is not only the driving thematic concern of the season, it also serves as the impetus for the show’s newest addition to its phantasmagoria of imaginary creatures: Lovebugs. The earnest insects appear whenever someone is about to experience the heady rush of love, to fan the flames of passion… and occasionally push the kids into ill-considered romantic gestures. (A character professing his feelings via a heartfelt guitar ballad at the end of episode three is one of the more accurate, and cringe-inducing, moments of the season.) The reason for their introduction may or may not be a little mercenary—the show’s planned spinoff, Human Resources, is set to feature these new characters—but it works, especially when rejection transforms the lovebugs into their opposites, hate worms.
For once, the show mostly avoids introducing any new kids to its roster, instead focusing on our preexisting cast of pubescent protagonists. Whereas last season saw Nick (Nick Kroll) defeat his more self-absorbed side and accept his insecurities instead of pushing them away, here he has to deal with the opposite—what happens when you stew too much in your emotions, especially when they include feelings of rejection. His journey to the dark side, embracing a nihilistic edgelord attitude and nursing a woe-is-me mentality, makes him a painfully recognizable type this season.
Similarly, Missy (Ayo Adebiri), having gone through a tumultuous transition last year, is finally allowed to rebel against her inner people-pleaser. Watching her embrace her hate worm (played with relish by Keke Palmer) after her new affinity group gets hijacked by Jessi (Jessi Klein) and Ali (Ali Wong) adds a new layer of depth to the increasingly well-rounded character. These new wrinkles to the girls’ personalities—and the musical interludes that often accompany them—make their stories the standouts this season.
But Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) has come a surprisingly long way as well. Despite the wild child getting dumped by Lola (Kroll) last season, he comes to realize, through a new “sidepiece” relationship with the school jock, that he actually wants more than just physical intimacy. Cue a burgeoning realization on the part of Matthew (Andrew Rannells) that, despite a seemingly solid relationship with Aiden (Zachary Quinto), he may actually be attracted to Jay. (Matthew also gets some of the best lines, such as when he’s informed that sports “cannot be gay or straight”: “Hahaha, hilarious—and false.”)
Unsurprisingly for a show that’s entering its fifth season, Big Mouth occasionally struggles to rediscover the right balance of humor and heart—and gross-out material. This season stumbles a bit, especially in the early episodes, going over the top with a commitment to shock-value one-liners and gonzo predicaments that grows wearying. (At one point, Nick even calls out his old-man hormone monster, Rick, for being exceptionally disturbing.) But once it finds its groove around episode four, the series’ endearing mix of true-to-life relatability and absurdist extremes returns.
As usual, some of the best laughs come courtesy of the monsters themselves. While Kroll’s Maury gets the most screen time, Maya Rudolph’s Connie remains the show-stealer, making big laugh lines out of goofball throwaways like, “You can’t ruin a friendship with sex. That’s a myth!” And the show is still swinging for the fences with individual high-concept episodes. This year’s offering, which blends live puppetry sequences with a half-dozen varieties of animation for a dirty-minded Christmas special, might be the most impressive yet.
But Mulaney’s Andrew, while still a mess of a person, takes an unexpectedly soulful turn this year, adding gentleness and compassion to his masochistic kinky side, and making him a sympathetic Greek chorus of sorts as a result. The result is a Big Mouth that turns its characters inside out—nice kids break bad, previous narcissists become empathetic—while still driving toward growth and forgiveness for everyone. Not bad for a five-seasons-and-counting show that also includes an eighth-grade boy telling his new teacher, “Just promise me you’ll think of me while you’re eating out your wife.”