From the mind of Nick Kroll, Big Mouth is a phenomenal show that explores growing up in one of the most realistic ways despite the immense surrealism displayed throughout the series.
At First Glance
Upon first viewing, the pilot of Netflix’s Big Mouth, it is admittedly a weird show. From the get-go we have a horrendous and disgustingly vulgar being known simply as The Hormone Monster (or even more simply, Maurice), children using profanity in excess, and several cringe worthy but all-too-relatable awkward moments. The show is off putting to say the least. So why am I praising it?
What makes Big Mouth so worthy of my praise is the simple fact that it employs what I call The Hard Talk in order to use raunchy humor as a vehicle to drive messages to the audience.
The Hard Talk
Big Mouth manages to walk a very tight rope in which it finds the best of both sex education and sex comedy. Typically, sexual education tends to be boringly didactic and sex comedy often lends itself to focusing too much on raunchy material while disregarding the horrendous examples it sets. Think American Pie. It’s got some solid laughs, but watching it almost 20 years after it came out and it is painfully dated. Going back as far as the 80s, teen sex comedies have been problematic in how they handle the topic.
So what is The Hard Talk? It is present throughout most genres in media, but rarely is it used as frequently as it should be. The term describes the moment when the piece takes a step back to address the issues surrounding the subject matter in subtle ways. Action movies will use the reality of death to create stakes. Are characters worried about getting shot? Do they weep when they lose a loved one? Think about The Avengers. Sure, there was a great action set piece during The Battle of New York, but the movie makes a point to show that regardless of how well done and entertaining the action is, the reality of the matter is that people died. Post-battle, we are shown candlelight vigils, people searching for loved ones, and clean up crews tending to rubble in what evokes memories of watching 9/11 coverage on the news. What we are shown is that actions have consequences.
This is where Big Mouth excels. The show isn’t afraid to hold characters accountable and essentially say ‘Yes, sex is fun, but you need to be mindful of X.’ The problem with The Hard Talk is that it is an awkward conversation to have because it is holding a mirror up to the intended audience recommending a makeover. The Hard Talk makes you question why do you like what you like and what about you need to be changed to enjoy these subjects responsibly.
When it's done wrong (A slight detour)
Looking back on several of my guilty pleasure movies from the early 2000s, it is abundantly clear that not having The Hard Talk can be problematic. American Pie, obviously being a prime contender for this category, was a go-to for me when I was the age of the kids on Big Mouth. The original movie in the franchise was centered on a high school friend group looking to collectively help each other lose their virginities. Nothing inherently wrong with that, right?
The problem arises when we look at their methods. The boys run the gamut of terrible approaches. Oz pretends to share interests with a girl and essentially fakes a personality to woo her. Kevin constantly pressures his girlfriend despite her making it clear that she isn’t ready. Worst of all, Jim, our protagonist films Nadia, a foreign exchange student changing in his room so he can stream it to his friends. Admittedly, these are fictional stories and sometimes people do shitty things, but the problem stems from how the narrative is framed. When characters in fiction do terrible things we need to ask ourselves, does the story condemn their actions? It would be fine for them to do these things if the movie was about them learning what they did was wrong, and they grow from it, but it isn’t. At most the characters are met with slight teasing, more in the vein of ‘You dummy!’ as opposed to ‘What the hell is wrong with you, Jim? You ruined that girl’s life!’ The characters never face any long-term fallout for their actions, and that is the problem.
The franchise even goes out of its way to find ways to justify these actions. When Jim films Nadia changing without her consent he accidentally broadcasts it to the whole school. Out of shame, she is forced to move back to her home country and it is never brought up again for the rest of the movie. In American Pie 2, Nadia returns. Naturally, Jim’s actions should come back to bite him in the ass, but instead, we find that instead of confrontation he is met with adoration. Not only is she enamored with him, but also his violation of her privacy results in no consequence for him. The first film frames it as if he is the victim because people make fun of his premature ejaculation that wound up in the broadcast, despite the fact that he is responsible for irreparably damaging Nadia’s life.
How Big Mouth Pulls it off
In all of the points where teen sex comedies fall short, Big Mouth succeeds gracefully. The show is full of characters making horrible choices, performing disgustingly lewd acts, and overall screwing up. The key difference is that the writing makes it a point to frame them as such. Big Mouth centers on a small middle school friend group learning about their bodies as they deal with puberty. They face insecurities and raging hormones (personified by Maurice, the Hormone Monster) and encounter plenty of stumbling blocks along the way.
Over the course of the show, every character makes regrettable decisions. Nick ruins every romantic interest he has due to the fact that he cannot allow his fragile ego to step aside. Jessi is prone to mood swings throughout her adolescence, which results in damage to her parents’ relationship. Nick’s best friend Andrew can’t seem to get his hormones in check and continually let’s his life be dictated by his… urges.
In a middle school equivalent to the infamous Nadia scene, Nick betrays the trust of his girlfriend Gina when he tells his friends that he touched her boobs for the first time. In traditional kid fashion, the gossip spreads and it eventually gets back to Gina that Nick is bragging about this intimate moment between them and it leads to them breaking up because the entire school is slut shaming her.
What Big Mouth does to justify this is it uses The Hard Talk. These actions aren’t resolved by the ends of their episodes, and the consequences reverberate throughout the seasons. Gina doesn’t come back to Nick in the finale to forgive him. Even though he apologizes, she let’s him know that sometimes an apology can’t change his actions and it won’t stop the entire school from calling her a slut. Instead what we see is Nick having to learn from his mistakes and grow as a person. Gina, learns to stand up for herself as an individual. She realizes that she doesn’t need Nick to feel good about herself and if she enjoys sexual interactions she shouldn’t feel guilty for it.
This isn’t the only time we see long lasting repercussions either. Due to the rift Jessi causes between her parents, they do end up splitting up which leads to even further problems down the line when her father has to move out. Andrew, smitten by his first relationship ends up sabotaging it when he comes on too strong and begins talking about marriage the day they begin to date in secret. In this case it isn’t even deplorable behavior, it’s just life and these kids have to learn from it. Things aren’t wrapped up neatly with a bow by the time the credits hit the screen and that’s what makes Big Mouth so good.
Why is it so effective?
It is rare when this approach to The Hard Talk works so effectively, and honestly, the format of the show lends itself to the commentary it provides. The show uses the naivety of childhood to justify The Hard Talk. These kids have so many questions which gives the show a narrative reason to offer answers to these uncomfortable topics.
In Big Mouth, emotions are often personified through imaginary beings and inanimate objects. When Andrew is talking to his Hormone Monster, it’s really just a horny kid thinking through his emotions. This tactic is effective because it allows the show to get over-the-top and silly, but it also provides us with a creative way to let us see what the kids are thinking and how they think.
The Hormone Monster represents the impulsive drive to feed into your needs. He gives terrible advice and tells the kids to do awful things, but more often than not they will shut him down. Interactions like these translate to a young and impressionable audience in a way that sets rules. It lets those watching know ‘Oh okay, that isn’t something that people are on board with.’ And when the characters cross the lines that they themselves have established, they face backlash, whether it be heartbreak, embarrassment, or regret.
Why is it so important? (last one, I promise)
Growing up, I was very impressionable. I based so many social interactions around movies and TV shows. The characters were cool when they did things, so doing what they do must make me cool, right? Even watching Arthur on PBS made me want to ride my bike around town with my friends when I was seven despite that being unsupervised at that age was quite dangerous. At eight, I realized I was Arthur’s age and hadn’t done half the cool stuff he had and felt like I was behind schedule. The media we take in helps shape us and that’s why The Hard Talk is so important. It keeps us grounded, helps us recognize reality, and curbs toxic behavior.
Big Mouth is rated TV-MA but I have no doubts that kids younger than teenagers are watching, and honestly, that’s a good thing. Yes, there is profanity and sexual content, but you know what? It’s framed in a healthy way where important and far too often looked over topics are discussed. Big Mouth is the sex ed course we never got, but desperately need. The show teaches about consent and how to respect your partner, how to learn about your body and take care of it, dealing with anxieties about growing up and learning to love yourself. I look forward to the generation that gets to claim that they grew up watching Big Mouth every day after school, because they were given The Hard Talk and I think they’re going to be better for it.
We’re all going through changes in our lives, and Big Mouth makes it a little easier.