On Dec. 4, Season 4 of the animated show “Big Mouth” aired on Netflix, continuing its irreverently hilarious tale of middle school drama. Featuring a box of tampons named Mark who wears board shorts and talks like a surfer, a hospital for blue balls, and a used menstrual pad the size of a building, the humor in season 4 is at times just as uncomfortably obscene and shocking as in seasons 1-3. Yet, on a positive note, the central characters of the show are compelling, continuously developing, and draw out an empathetic reaction from watchers.
Based loosely on the upbringing of creator Nick Kroll’s junior high experience, “Big Mouth” depicts a group of middle schoolers grappling with untamed hormones, learning how to operate in relationships, and discovering their passions, interests and identities. While this season’s 99% on Rotten Tomatoes might be shocking to those who have trouble stomaching the absurd humor of characters like Maury, the hormone monster, the rating reflects that the show strikes a specific chord in many viewers. “Big Mouth” is optimistic in its tone and its depiction of hormonal middle school life is fairly nuanced and accurate, although extremely hyperbolic at times.
Like a twisted, more intimate version of Pixar’s psychological animated film “Inside Out,” “Big Mouth’s” iconic motif has been its cast of imaginary characters who live in the middle schoolers’ minds, influencing the students’ actions. The Anxiety Mosquito and the Gratitude Toad — Grati-Toad for short — join the canon of pubescent muses, alongside the depression kitty, Shame Wizard and hormone monster. These mental beings vie for control over their middle school characters’ minds, creating inner tensions and mental battles.
Season 4 prolifically features the Anxiety Mosquito, who has wreaked the most havoc since the beginning of the Shame Wizard’s escapades in season 2 episode 3. After her first day at a new school, the Mosquito teams up with the depression kitty, compelling core character Jessi Glaser, voiced by Jessi Klein, to sob, “I’ve got nothing, and nobody.” It even cripples charismatic main character Nick Birch — voiced by comedian Nick Kroll — by revealing that his future self would be lonely and vapid. Nick’s mosquito morphs into a monster in the final scene, stating, “Your destiny is unavoidable.”
The Grati-Toad, however, whose aura Jessi describes as a “goofy southern, drunk-on-moonshine vibe,” feasts on anxiety mosquitos. After Nick’s emotional self-discovery scene at the end of season 4, wherein he conquers his anxiety, Jessi gives him her Grati-Toad companion, saying, “He’s really helped me with my anxiety.”
Episodes are saturated with some kind of positive lesson or upsetting truth with which the characters grow and develop. In the case of the Grati-Toad episode, watchers are guided to consider thankfulness as an antidote for anxiety. In another episode, character Lola Skumpy, voiced again by Kroll, mobilizes the courage to tell another core character, Jay Bilzerian, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, that she loves him and apologizes for not telling him sooner. “I didn’t say I love you back because, as history has proven … I have been hurt by putting myself out there,” she confesses.
Because of these characters’ confessions, lessons and moments of development, “Big Mouth” has a nearly literary bent, and an endearing effect on an open watcher. In part because of the show’s exquisitely constructed muses, one learns to empathize with Jessi’s struggle with anxiety and depression, and characters like Lola’s fear of intimacy.
It even makes sense that the hormone monsters are often the primary perpetrators of the show’s most egregious humor. As embodiments of adolescent sexual energy, the hormone monsters’ rudeness is consistent with their character and fits snugly into the series’s narrative.
“Big Mouth” is often foul and obscene, but its simple, positive moments of character growth are endearing. One could write off the show as an immature representation of a hyper-sexualized middle school experience, but for some, its upbeat narrative might not be as reviled as expected; as Lola’s imaginary knights of St. Thomas would advise: “If you shut thyself off, you’ve already sealed your fate.”