Growth Spurt

Season 3 of ‘Big Mouth’ is Ready for the Big Time

This year, Netflix is expected to spend $10-$15 billion on original content, but a surprisingly small portion of that is going to half-hour animated sitcoms. The streaming service has lots of cartoons aimed at kids, mostly shows built off movies like How to Train Your Dragon, and there’s adult-themed animation like David Fincher-led Love, Sex, and Robots, or anime-styled projects like Castlevania.

But it only has a few of the half-hour animated sitcoms that FOX still rules over with The Simpsons, Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, and American Dad! There’s the very skippable Bill Burr show F is for Family, the largely unfunny Matt Groening fantasy Disenchantment, Tuca & Bertie (cancelled after one season), and the acclaimed, soon-to-conclude BoJack Horseman. And then there’s Big Mouth.

As BoJack winds down, Big Mouth will take the crown as Netflix’s funniest, most important animated show, for good reason. In its just-released third season, the series about kids awkwardly stumbling through puberty is still as energetically surprising, sharply written, and expertly voice-acted as when it debuted two years ago. The comedic talent fueling it in the voice department alone, which includes executive producer Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Jenny Slate, Jordan Peele, and the superior Maya Rudolph, has propelled it past other animated shows that have tried, but failed, to get the chemistry right.

Big Mouth earns its reputation for being filthy and unrestrained (it’s on Netflix, after all), but it never strays too far from making its hormonally pinballing characters feel complicated and conflicted. While laugh-out-loud funny, Big Mouth at times poignantly wallows in the melancholy one experiences when the stuff starts happening down there and childhood starts to fade.

Season One had the element of surprise going for it, a near constant shock-and-awe of how filthy and high-concept one cartoon not called South Park could be. Various hormone monsters coach the kids, always pushing them to act on their impulses. There’s also the ghost of Duke Ellington (Peele) living in the attic of one of the boys, Nick (Kroll).

Season Two went beyond getting one’s early jollies, introducing a Shame Wizard (David Thewlis) a Depression Kitty (Jean Smart) that respectively fucked with the characters’ sexual identities and other issues.

Season Three feels like a more buoyant bounce back, still topical and razor-sharp, but more willing to throw joke grenades at problems than to try so hard to express them with so much gravity. Instead, it amplifies slights and heartbreaks, particularly in the first episode, an extended Valentine’s Day kickoff that Netflix released earlier in the year. Relationships end, friendships fray, and by the season’s end, it’s unclear where everybody will be after a school year ends.

Big Mouth: Season 3, now streaming on Netflix.

Most of the episodes take place at school, examining crushes, the modern complications of texting and Facetiming, standardized testing, and what happens when the boys rank the hottest girls in school (it goes very badly). But the format-breaking episodes, such as a barnburner about a trip to Florida, a late-season musical episode, “Disclosure The Movie: The Musical,” and the superhero-themed finale, are so strong, so full of great jokes and cleverly constructed digressions, that they serve as necessary breaks from the norm that add momentum to this run of episodes.

Big Mouth’s loose relationship with reality allows for a giant Sylvester Stallone made of sperm to fight with a Dolph Lundgren-shaped monster made of shit and blue portable-toilet water to have an epic showdown. Not only does it make perfect sense in the context in the show, it’s only one of dozens of flights of fancy in the season closer.

Those experiments aren’t always successful. An entire episode devoted to Duke Ellington’s life story, told for a book report project, feels like an excuse to keep Jordan Peele around and busy as the character rather than anything advancing the main stories.

Yes, Big Mouth tackles #metoo in the “Disclosure” episode, framing the ridiculously retrograde 1994 Michael Douglas / Demi Moore as a way of thinking that still exists, but the show wisely makes it one of two storylines in the episode, and at every turn. When Jessi (Jessi Klein) tries out for the thankless part of Michael Douglas’s wife, she sings, “Cause standing by her husband is a woman’s job,” she quickly changes track to exclaim, “What the fuck? Really?”

Big Mouth is savvy about cellphone addiction, the double standards girls face in their development, and the way even the nicest kids can turn into absolute assholes as they figure out who they are. But, as has been called out very publicly, it’s not so great at smugly defining sexual identities, as it does in a misfired monologue by new character Ali (Ali Wong) about pansexuality. In Season Two, Big Mouth also flirted with transforming into a health-education textbook in an Emmy-nominated episode about Planned Parenthood that felt off-kilter despite repeatedly going meta to explain itself.

The series began mostly as the story of Nick and Andrew (Mulaney), two best friends at different stages of puberty. But each season has pushed other characters to the fore, and this season, the feral and aggressive Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) and openly gay Matthew (Andrew Rannells) get larger character arcs. Matthew’s is predictable and pat; he has a crush on another gay student and they eventually find romance. Jay’s evolves more in line with Big Mouth’s surprisingly generous nature; his terrifying home life upends when his family “Home Alones” him, but it leads Jay to figure some things about himself, among them that he’s bisexual and that his home doesn’t have to be miserable.

As overstuffed with jokes as the episodes feel, even a mere 11 of them goes down like an excessively rich meal. Don’t binge Big Mouth. It’s worth enjoying a few at a time as it continues to mature into a dependably great adult show and a star player for Netflix.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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