Netflix’s provocative yet adorable animated series “Big Mouth” is only about the zillionth cartoon for grown-ups that attempts to plumb the awkward indignities of puberty. Nobody in their right mind would accept an offer to time-travel back to their middle-school days, but comedians depend heavily on the horrors of adolescence for material — and somehow it still provides.
Comic actor Nick Kroll and his buddy John Mulaney, who found recent success on Broadway with their “Oh, Hello” routine, provide voices for “Big Mouth’s” main characters, Nick and Andrew, two seventh-grade boys who are best friends despite the fact that their growth spurts are occurring on separate schedules. Andrew has sprouted pubic hair and is haunted by a randy Hormone Monster that only he can see, whose suggestive powers produce constant erections.
“What is wrong with me?” Andrew wonders, on yet another trip to the boys room during class.
“Nothing,” the Hormone Monster replies. “You’re a perfectly normal, gross little dirtbag.”
Andrew’s Hormone Monster (also voiced by Kroll, who plays several characters) is summoned by almost any occasion, be it a sex-ed filmstrip about fallopian tubes or an online trailer for a Paul Bunyan movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The latter causes Andrew to worry that he might be gay, which brings forth the spirits of Freddie Mercury, Socrates and Antonin Scalia for a musical number called “When You’re Gay.” Turns out Andrew is straight, but it’s nevertheless a fun song.
Apparitions figure prominently in the boys’ lives. The ghost of Duke Ellington (voiced by Jordan Peele) lives in Nick’s attic, dispensing inappropriately worldly but sometimes sound advice about life and relationships. “I saw Andrew’s penis,” Nick tells Duke, “and it was, like, way bigger and hairier than mine.”
“Ha-ha! Happened to me once, too,” Duke replies. “The Cotton Club, 1938. I saw Charlie Parker’s penis in the bathroom and good lord, I felt inferior.”
At a school dance, Nick has his first kiss with Jessi (Jessi Klein), which, while unsatisfying, ushers the two into a hotly scrutinized middle-school dating scene, the latest gossip of which is duly covered in the morning announcements by a catty gay boy, Matthew (Andrew Rannells). Thus Jessi and Nick must now reluctantly ride together in the back of the bus and hold hands all day on a class field trip to the Statue of Liberty, which makes Andrew jealous.
It’s on the field trip that Jessi, wearing white shorts, has her first menstrual period and is visited by a Hormone Monstress (Maya Rudolph), who, in a later episode, encourages Jessi to get to know herself with a hand-mirror. What a flash of genius to ask Kristen Wiig to provide the friendly, talkative voice of Jessi’s vagina. (“Hey, girl!”)
“Big Mouth” can’t resist crossing several lines of decency, otherwise I’d happily recommend it as sympathetic viewing for the age group it portrays (and I still might, for older teenagers whose sense of humor has matured). There’s a frankness and honesty beneath the show’s raunchiness that sometimes echo the best work of Judy Blume and other great chroniclers of adolescent angst, especially where the fraught and seldom-discussed feelings of boys are involved. It’s charming and repulsive all at once.
And after about six episodes, it starts to feel like enough, even though the series stretches itself to 10 episodes, culminating in Jessi’s anxiety-ridden bat mitzvah party, where it becomes clear that middle school is not the only hell in store for this circle of friends. The adults in their lives contend with plenty of awkward situations and personal crises, too, triggered by their own monstrous hormones. Some problems never go away.
Big Mouth (10 episodes) streams Friday on Neftlix.