Ah, middle school. What a time to be alive! A time when we were at our most hilariously awkward, as puberty assaulted us like, well, a monster. Or, at least, that’s the idea of “Big Mouth,” a hilarious new animated comedy that hit Netflix Sept. 29.

“Big Mouth” follows two friends, Nick Birch (Nick Kroll) and Andrew Glouberman (John Mulaney), whose middle school misadventures are based on the tween years of Kroll and series co-creator Andrew Goldberg. Their once harmonious childhoods have been upended by none other than The Hormone Monster (also Kroll), who appears and encourages the boys to act on their hormonal desires, usually offering up some less-than-family-friendly suggestions.

The show’s sense of humor is burrowed so far in the gutter that it might make the kids from “South Park” blush. Featuring episode titles such as “Girls Are Horny Too” and “Am I Gay?”, “Big Mouth” has no reservations, utilizing some astonishingly vulgar humor. We watch The Hormone Monster (and his female counterpart) suggest vile sexual acts, anthropomorphic genitals speak to their owners, and a middle schooler develops a romantic relationship with his pillow. Thankfully, the jokes make up for the exceeding vulgarity, and I found myself laughing out loud throughout all ten episodes. But, even if gross-out humor isn’t your jam, there’s a lot to find funny here that’s worth checking out.

Much of the show’s non-sexual humor revolves around the nostalgic familiarity of middle school. While we are given an uncomfortably close look at the hormonal awakenings of our junior high heroes, we also watch them navigate puppy love, embarrassing parents and struggles to be cool. While I lived a different reality than a lot of these characters (I attended private Christian school until college — and loved it, mind you), I found myself cringing remembering my own middle school failures, even if I had a different value system than the characters on this show. Despite the obscene humor, the setting actually provides a resonant emotional core.

There’s also an absurdist bent to some of the humor. “Big Mouth” constantly plays with whether or not The Hormone Monster can be seen by anyone or only the person he is currently talking to — especially considering for much of the season, he interacts primarily with Andrew. The Ghost of Duke Ellington lives in Nick’s attic. Various characters comment on the fact that they are in a Netflix show. In one episode, the Hormone Monster even recalls the previous episode, then talks about the plot of the next episode, encouraging us, “It’s a really sex-positive episode.” The casual way the show approaches these moments of absurdity remind us that it’s not taking itself too seriously, and we probably shouldn’t either.

All this madness wouldn’t be possible without an effective vocal cast to bring the characters to life. Never fear, as “Big Mouth” has an all-star cast that absolutely knocks it out of the park. Nick Kroll is the star of the show. In addition to Nick and the Hormone Monster, he also plays Coach Steve, the idiotic and hapless PE Teacher, and Lola, the obsessive sidekick to the most popular girl in school. John Mulaney isn’t necessarily known for his acting, but his performance as Andrew fits perfectly in line with the self-effacing persona he portrays in his standup, and creates a hilariously authentic performance. Jason Mantzoukas plays Jay, a dim-witted amateur magician who hangs around Andrew and Nick. The aforementioned pillow paramour, Jay, is riotously hilarious, and he cracked me up almost every time he showed up on screen. Mantzoukas brings an energy to Jay that isn’t present in other characters and really rounds out the cast. In addition to the rotating cast of characters, there are also quite a few cameos from voices you’ll recognize, especially Kristen Wiig (whose “character” is unforgettable).

The last important character is Jessi (Jessi Klein). As men are able to reflect on their own experiences through Nick and Andrew, Jessi provides a touchpoint for female viewers. During the season, she has her first period, experiences friction with her mom, enters a relationship with a boy just to make out with him and gets freaked out by the attention of everyone around her after she wears a push-up bra to school. While all of this is happening in the context of an outlandish animated comedy, the show’s treatment of Jessi provides a lot of genuine moments, some I would assume land truthfully and maybe even tenderly.

A hilarious addition to Netflix’s slate of animated comedies, “Big Mouth” certainly isn’t for everyone. But the nostalgic and bittersweet reflections on middle school should resonate with college-aged viewers. Some of your friends have likely been revisiting their glory days with the revival of “The Magic School Bus,” but you can return to middle school and watch Hormone Monsters wreak hormonal havoc.

4/5 Stars

 

lentzsm@miamioh.edu

@ScottLentz_

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