Adolescence is a topic that is rich for comedy, but the balance needs to be right. Playing the crude card is a way to get an easy laugh, but it’s more difficult to twist conventions and make crude clever. The likes of the American Pie franchise, and latterly TV programmes such as The Inbetweeners and That ‘70s Show, have been able to, even on a small scale, match vulgarity with vulnerability. However, few television shows have tackled the period (pun intended) surrounding puberty.
After all, on the surface, this is where it moves from ‘cringe-worthy’ to simply ‘awkward’. While we may laugh and recoil in horror at hopeless teens like Will McKenzie pressing up against his lover’s perineum, it’s slightly more difficult to stifle the same giggles at the thought of a 12-year-old boy having his debut dick squeeze. Thus, Netflix’s latest animation, Big Mouth, already has something of an uphill battle to climb. However, watching the show displays the kind of emotional depth and relatability that has been sorely missing from a subject usually devoted to grainy webcams, friends’ knicker drawers and crinkly magazine cuttings.
Like other Netflix shows – think another animation, Bojack Horseman – the first season of Big Mouth is far from perfect. However, the reasons the show sometimes falls short are, surprisingly, not due to the subject matter. With episodes dealing with inaugural periods, possible homosexuality and raging hormones, Big Mouth commendably straddles the line between pre-teen grossness and heartfelt sentiment. It is also admirably sex-positive, splitting time between the male and female leads and showing a refreshing, honest portrayal of some big changes.
Of the topics tackled, third episode ‘Am I Gay?’ could have been handled clumsily, but Andrew’s sudden confusion at his orientation is instead delicate and subtle, while his friends’ responses to his concerns an accurate cocktail of disgust and empathy. The resolution, of Andrew’s best friend Nick kissing him to gauge the reaction, befits characters of such a young age, but again never once feels patronising or put-on. Equally, the story arc of female lead Jessi, suddenly entrenched with angst and awkwardness, adds welcome dimensions to a show that could have dissolved into a soggy biscuit fest.
The aforementioned issues will hopefully be ironed out over time, but the imperfections that bely Big Mouth don’t detract from the deep topics that propel the series forward. One such criticism is that the writers seem to be locked in the same cycle as those who now pen The Simpsons – if it’s funny once, it’ll be funny ad infinitum. That’s why we get repetitive runners regarding a talking ladybird, a gym teacher’s debilitating pink eye and two racist cops that would have been funny as a standalone gag, but really not worthy of readmission.
Equally, some of the cut-away gags and random ‘celebrity’ nods (Joe Walsh, Garrison Keiller) recall the dated, shudder-inducing humour of Seth McFarlane. When the randomness works, it works well – a Labrador representing raffish actor Nathan Fillion is given just enough screen time to stick, and a tampon Michael Stipe belting out an ‘Everybody Hurts’ pastiche is off-centre enough to work. There’s also the brilliant Hormone Monster (and his female counterpart), who sounds so much like Will Arnett you begin furiously pondering if Netflix could ever survive without him.
Overall, Big Mouth triumphs not through its characters or gags, but through tackling a subject matter that could have, perhaps like the first flushes of puberty itself, been a horrible, sticky mess. Instead, they have created a series with an open mind and an even bigger heart.
Words: Sam Lambeth