There’s no partnership quite like depression and anxiety. Like any other dynamic duo, the two complement one another, make each other brighter and more vivid. Each feeds into the other, growing, ebbing, flowing, taking turns, working in tandem to ensure you, the human vessel acting as their playground, are completely miserable.
No television show gets that quite like Big Mouth, and no show comes close to depicting it as accurately. By taking these big, heavy, emotional concepts and making them tangible beings of their own, Big Mouth allows them to feel real in a way our own minds refuse to let us.
We first met the Depression Kitty (voiced by Jean Smart) when she sinks her sultry claws into Jessi (Jessi Klein). Jessi, with the help of Connie the Hormone Monstress (Maya Rudolph) overcomes the kitty, but as anyone with depression knows, the Cat comes back. Even the most triumphant defeat is temporary. Enter, Tito the anxiety mosquito (Maria Bamford, whose quivering voice perfectly encompasses the desperate cling of the disorder). Tito, the flittering, stinging form of anxiety, believes themself to be helping, “protecting” Jessi, Nick (Nick Kroll), and Andrew (John Mulaney) from the horrors that may befall them, like being too vulnerable, or putting themselves out there, or existing in general. That’s the trick with anxiety — there is no quelling it by listening to it. Tito reminds our pubescent heroes that they can do nothing right, everything they do is a disappointing failure, overwhelming them until a cloud of mosquitoes sends them into an outwardly catatonic, internally chaotic panic attack.
And I know because, as I write this, the anxiety mosquitoes are buzzing around my head and in my chest, a visceral internal hum of vigilance just waiting for something to go wrong, while the depression kitty lays on my throat, its heavy warmth pushing on my shoulder blades making even the idea of movement exhausting if not impossible. And after I wrote these last few lines, the swarm arrived and my entire body shook from the inside out, my heart pounding, my head loud, my ears ringing.
As an adult in 2020, one with major depression and an anxiety disorder, the stresses of the world can be overwhelming, to put it mildly. And while my specific triggers are different from those of animated eighth graders, I see so much of myself in them. Feeling too vulnerable like Nick, feeling ashamed like Andrew, feeling lost and out of control like Jessi and Missy (voiced originally by Jenny Slate, currently Ayo Edebiri), these are things relatable at any age. And Big Mouth portrays that in ways I’ve not only never seen, but never felt. It puts a face — albeit a fuzzy one or one with a pointed, flesh-puncturing nose — to the things that make existence so very tiring. In doing so, it takes the illnesses that encompass so much of my daily life and makes them physically real and visible, and therefore defeatable.
Depicting mental illness on screen can be challenging. It’s why many portrayals lean into damaging tropes. People with mental illness are quirky and played for laughs and drama (think Dr. House or Sherlock), or damaging, harmful to themselves and others (think Billy from Six Feet Under, or frankly any depiction of dissociative identity disorder from Split to Fight Club), with very little in between. To some extent, I can see why creators might default to this kind of tropery — mental illness is largely internal and to externalize it for viewers means making it big. And what could be bigger than cutesy abusive genius murderer?
This is where shows that best succeed at discussing mental health topics — shows like Big Mouth, Bojack Horseman, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — use their fantastical premises to more accurately show what it’s really like to have these disorders. Through the use of musical numbers, ironic juxtaposition, and, yes, mosquitoes, the innate surreality of one’s own brain turning on them is displayed in a tangible way more easily perceived by us watching. As Jessi’s therapist tells her, “Anxiety is that feeling we get inside that there’s danger all around us.” And it’s just that — a feeling. The danger isn’t around us may not be real but the feeling is, the very real sensation of terror and panic filling our entire beings.
When Big Mouth shows Nick’s inner fantasy that the world is literally ending and he is dying alone with no one but a bunch of Titos, to Nick, that feels real. If not the experience then what it does to his heart, his breathing, his skin. For Jessi, anxiety and depression work together to tell her that if she makes the slightest wrong move — here meaning not giving her boyfriend Michaelangelo a handjob or acting any way but “cool” and unemotional — Michaelangelo will break up with her and, as such, the perceived if endlessly shaky self-esteem she has gleaned from being his girlfriend will crumble. For Missy, as she goes through a journey of growing up and discovering a racial identity beyond the well-meaning “I don’t see color” hippie attitude of her parents, she doesn’t know who she is or how all the different parts of her past can exist within one small person.
It’s almost laughable then, given how all-encompassing these disorders are, that something as simple as to “just breathe” or finding something to be grateful for really does work. Temporarily, yes, but they really do help. That’s what Andrew learns from Missy, and Jessi learns from the Gratitoad (Zach Galifianakis), the physical and somewhat goofy form of gratitude, a perky toad with a southern drawl and a penchant for pussy(cats). As the Gratitoad gets bigger, it makes Tito and Depression Kitty smaller and more manageable.
These are more than just precious means of self-soothing — and nowhere near a cure of the “just be happy instead” Insta influencer variety. For people with mental illness, these are tiny acts of gaining control over your body and mind, a way to gain back the upper hand and grab the sword so to speak. Jessi gets to take a brief moment to be grateful for Sour Patch Kids, and it helps. Again, this is not the end of her anxiety and depression, but it’s a reminder that all is not lost. That there are good things, things that make life worth living long enough to get real help, like therapy and medication. Those little moments of control, breath, and gratitude are the ropes we hold on to, and are as critical as anything else.
For some of us, one of those ropes might just be a Netflix cartoon about kids going through puberty. I know I’m certainly grateful for it.
Big Mouth Season 4 is streaming now on Netflix.
But which surprises might be in store?
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