Life’s Complicated but Worth Fighting For


“I’m going through changes,” sings Charles Bradley in the Big Mouth opening theme song. For the animated Netflix comedy’s fourth season, this isn’t just a broad summary of the show’s premise — a genital-warts-and-all overview of all the complicated truths going on during puberty — but of this season’s need to evolve past itself, to get through a grinding growth spurt and come out taller on the other side. Big Mouth Season 4 is interested in challenging the status quo, in ways both within the series and meta-textually, and does so with no holds barred. The fact that it spins all of these transgressive/progressive plates with such fearless energy and comes out of the whole thing with a palpable sense of glee, hope, and just a few plate shards on the ground is nothing short of a minor miracle.

There are tons of changes, fractures, and fusions to keep track of throughout Big Mouth Season 4, but three overarching choices motivate them all, almost splitting the 10 episodes into mini-seasons themselves. Uptop, we’ve got a trip to summer camp, with gives the teenage characters played by regular cast members like Nick Kroll, Jessi Klein (also a co-creators), and John Mulaney all kinds of opportunities to play with a litany of guest stars, including Seth Rogen, John Oliver, and Josie Totah. In the middle, we enter the terrifying halls of eighth grade, featuring a thrillingly raunchy PEN15 kind-of-crossover (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play middle school girls again, and they run away with it) and the best Sterling K. Brown performance I think we’ll ever witness. And the back third of the season gives us a dystopian glimpse at a potential future to come, pushing Kroll’s character to the brink. All of these character moves are exacerbated by the wondrous appearance of Maria Bamford as an ever-multiplying anxiety mosquito, a welcome addition to the show’s litany of perfect visual metaphors for mental health issues.

Despite all of these additions to the stew, Big Mouth is so confident in how it works and vibes by now, the episodes still all taste like comfort food of the highest order to fans of the show. Jokes fly at an aggressive, furious rate of pace, never yielding to stun me with their brutal honesty or willingness to push a one-off idea past any other show’s sense of restraint. Episodes still dive into adolescent issues like menstruation, masturbation, and coming out as trans without abandon, but with tons of empathy (though I’ll note that some of the frank explorations of these issues, especially a sequence where a group of cis boys barrage our trans character voiced by Totah with a litany of deadnaming questions, might be triggering for some viewers). Our hormone monsters, played by Kroll, Thandie Newton, and reigning MVP of all things comedy Maya Rudolph (her line-readings in this season are just freaking masterful), support our teenage characters’ horny explorations and emotional yearnings with a surreal, beyond-committed focus. And the animation continues to soar, shifting into brief genre parodies or character design corruptions as a gag needs, and always getting a guttural laugh out of me with the sheer quantity of “casual middle fingers.” Put it this way: The very first sequence is one of those “Netflix series recap” things you usually skip done as a professional, stylish, hilarious musical number (composer Mark Rivers continues to crush throughout), instantly assuring you you’re in unexpectedly safe hands.

Thandie Newton, Lena Waithe, Quinta Brunson, and Jenny Slate in Big Mouth Season 4
Image via Netflix

There’s one arc that, at times, did make me feel “unsafe.” It has to do with Missy Foreman-Greenwald, a mixed-race character whose previous actor Jenny Slate, a white woman, is replaced by Ayo Edebiri, a Black woman… for just two episodes at the end of Season 4. I understand much of Slate’s recordings were already completed for Season 4, and the technical headaches that would’ve gone into replacing her voice for all Season 4 episodes and re-matching the animation were too insurmountable to achieve, especially during a pandemic, but it does make many parts of Missy’s arc feel pretty cringe-inducing to watch — at least to start. Her Season 4 journey is one of discovering what it means for her to be Black moving forward, spurred by a visit to her Atlanta-based cousins (voiced wonderfully by Lena Waithe and Quinta Brunson). Their conversations spark a series of inspired stories for Missy, including the unpacking of code-switching, how white people talk about Black hair, and how to find a new sense of confidence beyond your previously drawn identity (visualized by Missy’s literally drawn look changing throughout). On paper, these stories are exquisite, hilarious, and feel taken from an authentic place — with the in-practice exception of the white actor at the center of it. Big Mouth has to call out these moments of dissonance with typically self-reflexive jokes — at one point, Waithe and Brunson’s characters encourage Missy to say the N-word, causing Missy to point-blank tell the camera that “she” can never say it — but it feels like a jokey band-aid put over a serious wound, an evasion of needed criticism through the admittedly contagious power of comedic craft.

However, if you stick with Missy’s journey, you will find a joyous conclusion for her, and the way it dovetails with Edebiri taking over the character is graceful, encouraging, and surprisingly seamless given all the seams a viewer reckons with to enjoy the beginnings of the arc. And when Edebiri does get to be Missy, however briefly, it makes me beyond excited for the show’s future; her take on the character honors Slate’s previous work while eliminating some of the more performative, cartoonish edges in favor of, well, authenticity. Even for a show as pervasively, consistently entertaining, and inviting as Big Mouth, Season 4 does require some patience for many of its payoffs to hit with the level of optimism, joy, and laugh-out-loud insights you demand from the show. If you find any moment particularly mean-spirited or needlessly cynical, as I did throughout the entirety of one breakout “future” episode, I encourage you to stick with it as you can; it’s undoubtedly the first part of a master plan that ends in hope. The final moments of Season 4 are as wholesome as I’ve seen on any animated show (predicated on a guest star performance I could never spoil, but made me smile the whole time), presenting a future with possibilities as big as Kroll’s big mouth. It just takes some burning, yearning effort to grow. What are you gonna do?

P.S. It must be said: Jay and Lola Forever. You’ll understand when you see it.

Grade: A-

Big Mouth Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix.

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