Netflix's 'Big Mouth' Goes Through Changes in Its Fourth Season
An anxiety mosquito and a new Missy make the show better than ever.
"I'm going through changes," is how the theme song for Netflix's animated comedy Big Mouth begins, and, in its fourth season, the same could be said about the show, created by childhood friends Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg, along with Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. You'll still find some of the grossest bodily humor around—there's an entire episode about "poop madness," which features a talking turtle head of shit—but at the same time Big Mouth has evolved into one of the most nuanced, adept series about mental health and identity.
The latest batch of episodes represents a highly publicized transition. In the penultimate episode of the season, Jenny Slate exits the role of Missy, and comedian, and writer on Big Mouth, Ayo Edebiri takes over. Slate, who is white, announced she was exiting the biracial role this past June in light of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
In that episode, titled "Horrority House," the gang attends a Halloween party at a sorority house where they are drugged by the greedy members of Kappa Kappa Kill. (Take a second to look at those initials.) They each fall into a hallucination that represents their deepest fears.
Jessi (Jessi Klein), who has been struggling with crippling depression, isolation, and anxiety all season, finds herself in a straight jacket in a mental institution. Matthew (Andrew Rannells) is in a theater where his boyfriend and his disapproving, homophobic mother, to whom he used to be very close, are threatened by a spinning saw unless he chooses between them. Nick (Kroll) is in an It scenario where the clown is his callous adult self, a soulless talk show host. Andrew (John Mulaney) keeps dying, sometimes with Natasha Lyonne present. And, finally, Missy ends up in a hall of mirrors, featuring an Us allusion, where all the different versions of herself are taunting her.
Earlier, Missy's head literally explodes—it's a cartoon, after all—when her cousins in Atlanta encourage her to confront her own Blackness. They take her to have her hair braided and go shopping to get rid of her childish overalls, which had been her defining costume. In a later episode, on a class trip to New York to visit the 9/11 Museum, her classmate DeVon (Jak Knight) teaches her about code switching with a song. It's, admittedly, uncomfortable to hear Slate voice Missy during these sequences, and the writers are aware of that, even throwing in a meta-textual acknowledgement of the actress voicing her. Knowing that Edebiri is on the way is perhaps the only reason Slate's performance is even slightly permissible. (The season was largely finished before Edebiri was cast, but, according to Vulture, the crew decided to rerecord "Horrority House" when she came on board.)
Big Mouth is constantly walking a fine line between earnestly portraying the difficulties of finding yourself at a crucial age and its aggressively disgusting comedy. In the previous season, the show was met with criticism after having a character defining pansexuality in a way that missed the mark, especially as related to trans people. But instead of doubling down on the mistake, Goldberg apologized. This year introduces a trans character voiced by trans actress Josie Totah, who is also the breakout star of the Saved By the Bell reboot. Big Mouth is all about how life is a series of fuck-ups, so when it fucks up, it finds a way to improve rather than dig in or obfuscate.
During "Horrority House," Missy eventually breaks the mirrors containing her past selves and reconstructs herself from the pieces of glass with the notion that it's kind of like a "puzzle, and a puzzle is just a picture you haven't met yet." She's greeted by an abstract Missy, who has the voice of Edebiri. She's beautiful. Like Missy, most of the other kids have happy endings in "Horrority House." Matthew realizes that no matter how he chooses to live his life, no one will die. Jessi, speaking to a giant toad, finds reasons to be grateful. Sure, maybe it's all a little easy—and tweens should definitely not be dosed with ayahuasca on their road to self discovery—but it works in part because of how accurate the representation of mental health has been leading up to the scenario.
The initial gimmick of Big Mouth was that the onset of puberty arrived in the form of over-sexed Hormone Monsters, but the writers kept expanding what other types of experiences could be personified. Thus, David Thewlis became the Shame Monster, and Jean Smart voices the Depression Kitty. This year, we get Maria Bamford as Tito the Anxiety Mosquito, who buzzes around the kids' heads, relentlessly fueling their worries. While the sex stuff on screen is hyperbolic, the depiction of childhood besieged by adult worries is often painfully familiar. The characters may be staying the same age, but the show is maturing.
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