"Your body is a wonderland," sang John Mayer, wrongly.
What he obviously meant to sing was "Your body is Wonderland," as in, "Your body, like mine, like everyone's, is a surreal and frequently terrifying Lewis-Carroll hellscape where everything exists in a state of constant flux, where rules of logic and intellect get trammeled by whim and caprice, and where the governing authority is casually malicious and heedlessly cruel."
Our bodies hate us. They delight in our dismay and embarrassment. This is an essential human truth, but it's one that adults forget.
Middle-schoolers don't. They can't. The moment puberty settles over them like a disquietingly oily morning dew, they're helpless before its attendant spurts and smells and hairs, its eruptions and inflammations; they enter a state of perpetual, sebaceous misery.
It's ... funnier than it sounds. Once you get some distance.
The animated series Big Mouth, the 10-episode second season of which drops on Netflix today, locates that funny, and achieves that distance, by going big. Real big. Like, by personifying the adolescent body's hormonal urges as foul-mouthed horned (and horny) monsters, is how big. And then adding lustily arranged, and just plain lusty, musical numbers about subjects like boobs, masturbation and the ... ah, areas where those two topics intersect, and more.
Season one introduced us to young Nick (Nick Kroll), hapless Andrew (John Mulaney), Andrew's faithful Hormone Monster Maurice (Kroll again, though you'd be forgiven for thinking it's Diedrich Bader or Will Arnett), their savvy, sardonic friend Jessi (Jessi Klein), Jessi's Hormone Monstress Connie (the ebullient Maya Rudolph), resident nerd Missy (Jenny Slate) and repellent dirtbag Jay (Jason Mantzoukas).
Season two introduces a classmate named Gina (Gina Rodriguez) and a new anthropomorphic presence whose identity is too fun to spoil, voiced with sinister relish by David Thewlis.
The jokes are many, and filthy, and utterly cringeworthy for all the right (read: deeply earned) reasons. Compare to South Park, an animated series that similarly delights in humiliating its characters. There, the jokes are paramount, the humiliations punchlines in and of themselves, and stimulating our cringe response is the end goal.
Big Mouth is arguably a filthier show, with even cruder jokes and an obsession with sex that's more relentless. Crucially, however, it's also a much more sincere, more sweet, more intensely empathetic series that — even as it's visiting horrors and humiliations on its characters — never fails to side with them. We care about these poor schmucks, so the jokes land harder, the cringes go deeper.
One of the hallmarks of the show is its clear-eyed acknowledgement, even championing, of something popular culture has been loath to address — that girls and women are just as driven by sex as boys and men. It takes that simple, surface truth and interrogates it, to reveal how the same impulses manifest differently. The result is not subtle — Andrew's Hormone Monster is a witless, craven creature of base lusts, while Jessie's Hormone Monstress, as brilliantly embodied by Maya Rudolph's clarion voice, is a goddess of passion and glorious rage — but this is puberty we're talking about. It's anything but subtle.
There's a messy, uneven quality to the series; not all the characters work. Middle-aged virgin Coach Steve (Kroll again), for example, seems far too stupid to function, even within the show's malleable reality, and the creators never tire of sounding this one-note character's one note. The budding friendship between Nick and Gina, on the other hand, evinces an unforced and charming quality, while Jessi's increasingly troubled relationship with her parents is both played for laughs ("That was beautiful," gushes the Hormone Monstress, after Jessi hurls ugly words at her mother that destroy the woman's self-esteem, "NO NOTES!") and at the same time seems grounded, specific and very real.
One of my favorite touches of the new season occurs when the perennially chipper, self-actualized character of Missy manifests a bout of body shame. The show has plenty of high-concept, anthropomorphic methods on hand that could easily represent this concept dramatically, but instead of a giant monster or a sinister wizard, the voice telling Missy she's ugly and unlovable, and urging her to ignore the supportive words from her friends and family, is Missy herself — or technically, the self she sees in the mirror.
Mirror-Missy's ability to emotionally destroy Missy ("Your hope is embarrassing!") is funny ... and it's chilling. Sharply observed ... and cringeworthy. Hilarious and, like the series itself ... kind of ... very ... not.
That's Big Mouth's singular power. It hasn't forgotten the abject hell of adolescence — and it's not about to let you forget it, either.