The Netflix animated series “Big Mouth” has what might be the most fitting theme music I’ve ever heard on a show. It’s the late soul singer Charles Bradley bellowing, “I’m going through chaaaaaa-nges,” which is the chorus to “Changes,” the cover of a Black Sabbath song he released in 2016, not long before his death.
Delivered in Bradley’s trademark pained rasp, nothing about the performance is easy, and neither are the changes it’s meant to evoke. “Big Mouth” is a raunchy and brutally funny comedy about a group of preteens trying to navigate puberty — which, you may recall, is no picnic.
It’s definitely not a kids’ show, and this means most of the audience will have already traversed this rocky passage of life. As such, a trigger warning should apply broadly to the series, because almost any adult will be reminded of extremely uncomfortable memories and formative humiliations that, however long-forgotten or imperceptible to others, still loom vastly in our minds.
No? Just me? Seriously? Wow.
The series, whose fourth season appeared in December, was co-created by the comedian and actor Nick Kroll, who also voices several of the characters. The core is a group of friends at a public middle school in suburban New York, all teetering on either side of pubescence. They come from different races, religions, economic classes and family situations, but are all bound by human concerns intrinsic to adolescence: the onset of new feelings, urges, hair, fluids ... well, you remember.
The kids’ urges and confusions are given voice by Hormone Monsters, who come from a “Monsters, Inc.” type of inter-dimensional bureaucracy that exists to lead teens into young adulthood. These figures, which look like heavily sexualized Maurice Sendak illustrations, are ostensible guides to the kids’ changing bodies and minds, but are also acting in their own interests.
As the kids’ bodies mature, scarier monsters emerge that work together to further complicate their journeys; eventually we meet a Shame Wizard, a Depression Kitten and an Anxiety Mosquito.
One character, Nick (Kroll), lives in a house whose attic, for no reason whatsoever, is haunted by the ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele), who dispenses terrible life advice. Another, Missy (until recently voiced by Jenny Slate), just has a mirror version of herself who reminds her what she doesn’t like about her body and personality, which is often heartbreaking.
The characters’ malleable minds and identities open doors for frank explorations of consent, masculinity, sexual orientation, gender equity/fluidity and race. To that point, the series itself was drawn into a discussion about representation earlier this year when Slate, who is white, announced she’d no longer do the voice of Missy, who is biracial. Late in the new season, the Black performer Ayo Edebiri takes over the role.
That “Big Mouth” can sail these waters insightfully (if imperfectly) without softening its comedy feels like a miraculous achievement, but it’s just one of several.
While not visually groundbreaking, “Big Mouth” belongs in a conversation about the best animated series ever made. Its gross-out humor recalls “The Ren & Stimpy Show.” Its rapid-fire joke delivery is reminiscent of early “Family Guy” seasons. And it shares with Netflix’s earlier masterpiece “Bojack Horseman,” plus certain Pixar films, a frankness about human frailty and a capacity for dramatizing its characters’ inner lives that is probably only achievable through animation.
The monsters in particular, I think, are a genius way of contextualizing preteen development as an experience that, while devastatingly personal and consequential, is larger than any single adolescent. In a key moment in the new season, the primary characters — Nick and Andrew (John Mulaney) — finally discover they’re not the center of the universe, which is a message adult life will deliver every chance it gets.
Fittingly, the adults in the kids’ lives exist almost as living warning signs, each still bearing scars from their own journey through this psychosexual minefield. Just surviving these changes (or “chaaaaaa-nges”) doesn’t necessarily prepare you for what’s on the other side.