'Big Mouth' Season 2 Tacks on Shame for an Even Funnier Take on Teen Hormones
Even for adults, shame can be a spectral gnawing presence in the human conscience. But is there a more shame-filled time than the early teenage years when bodies are changing and kids are jerks and nothing makes any sense? Probably not. Netflix's animated series Big Mouth understands this.
The hook behind Big Mouth -- created in part by childhood best friends Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg -- is that it actualizes the overwhelming emotions that blanket that rocky age by turning metaphors into something literal. These Westchester 13-year-olds aren't just besieged by puberty, they are plagued by actual Hormone Monsters. These creatures -- who go by the hilariously normal names of Maury, Connie, and Rick -- are both terrifying and exciting, disgusting and sort of weirdly sweet. The Hormone Monsters genuinely care about their charges, often getting defensive over their teens, but they have terrible instincts.
But Season 2 introduces a new spirit that's not quite as benevolently misguided: the Shame Wizard. Introduced in episode three, this floating figure looks like a ghoul and speaks with the voice of David Thewlis. (You know him as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films.) The Shame Wizard first emerges to taunt Andrew (John Mulaney) after the latter jerks off to his friend's sister's bathing suit. So, yeah, the Shame Wizard has a point.
The general thesis of the Shame Wizard is that without shame, humans would be left to their basest instincts. And while that's not wrong, exactly, we see the havoc he wreaks later on in the season when all the kids are gathered for a sleepover at the school. It's a perfect hotbed for adolescent insanity, and the Shame Wizard runs rampant. He slut-shames one girl, Gina (Gina Rodriguez), for letting a boy touch her boob. He shames another, Jessi (Jessi Klein), for perpetuating the slut-shaming. He tells gay kid Matthew (Andrew Rannells) that he's an outcast. He targets good-natured horny spaz Missy (Jenny Slate) for... being a horny spaz.
What's implicit in all these interactions is how shame operates differently for different people. For Andrew, it's necessary. When Andrew meets the newly humbled Shame Wizard in the finale, the creepy-looking ghoul implores, "Perhaps I'm too harsh sometimes, but I only want you to be a better person." And sure enough, later that evening Andrew chooses not to masturbate feet away from his best friend's head.
But when the Wizard goes after women, the tone is much different. The likes of Jessi, Gina, and Missy are constantly told to feel crappy about their bodies and their urges. They don't need a Shame Wizard to do that. He's pouring salt in a societal wound. I kept flashing back to the movie Eighth Grade, which devastatingly captured the internal monologue of an awkward middle school girl. Big Mouth does something similar in its asides with these teens and their respective monsters -- just to more outwardly funny results. The boys thoughtlessly act on their urges; the girls are constantly worried about judgment, which the Shame Wizard preys on.
But the Shame Wizard isn't strictly a villain. He wants to help, and actually sort of wants friends. As Goldberg told Vulture, "What makes shame so powerful is that it’s so internal, and you keep it secret, and you don’t talk about it and it just festers, and you judge yourself. That kind of empathy and vulnerability is the way to combat it."
This nuance in a deliriously unsubtle show filled with some of the grossest gags around is why Big Mouth rises above its most puerile instincts (and there are a lot of those). The physical manifestation of emotions is both insanely clever, and a way to dig into the psychological torments of puberty in a way few other pieces of entertainment have.
In the last episode of the season, Nick, Andrew, and Jessi take a magical journey to where the emotional sausage is made by jumping through a dimensional portal left open in Nick's bedroom by the incompetent Hormone Monster Tyler (John Gemberling). This parallel universe is a grand office building, and when they head to the Department of Puberty, they encounter a whole range of Hormone Monsters, including Gavin (Bobby Cannavale), an intimidating mass of testosterone. Meanwhile, in a conference room, the various beasts representing all the signals flaring in a burgeoning teen girl's head are battling over the soul of Jessi, who has been sent down a path of mild truancy by her Monstress Connie in the wake of her parents' divorce. There's an Intellect Sphinx, an Ambition Gremlin, and an Anxiety Armadillo, all worrying that Jessi's potential is slipping away. The Sphinx invites the Depression Kitty (Jean Smart) to take over. The smooth-voiced Kitty offers a false sense of security, lulling Jessi with inaction and melted ice cream. Jessi, hearing the voice of her friends, understands that she needs help. Still, I would guess we haven't seen the last of Kitty; depression doesn't go away that easily.
The Kitty -- combined with the Sphinx, the Wizard, and the rest -- reveal that Big Mouth all along has been a more disgusting version of Inside Out, the Pixar movie where a girl's emotions were represented as a series of adorable blobs battling it out. But where Inside Out was concerned with letting go of childhood memories (RIP Bing Bong) as a path to adulthood, Big Mouth is focused on the nascent mature anxieties that flood the cortex. It's telling that, at this point, Jessi is the target for monsters that aren't just hormonal. It's often more complicated for women.
When I spoke with Kroll over the summer, he mentioned that he doesn't want to keep Big Mouth locked in the same time period forever, and indeed, there will be plenty more work for the Shame Wizard and the Depression Kitty as the characters grow up. With an entire dimension of emotional consciousness in play now, probably some other fantastical beings will pop up too.