While classic family sitcoms spent most of their time dealing with low-stakes antics like sibling rivalry or ruined holiday dinners, every once in a while they delved into heavier topics, like drug use, mental health, and sexuality. These “very special episodes” were slapped with disclaimers about their content to shield sensitive audience members (and drum up interest from viewers hoping to see something forbidden). But they still largely protected their main characters and audiences from real consequences by delivering hackneyed, moralistic conclusions.
The fourth season of Netflix’s raunchy coming-of-age animated series Big Mouth is like a train of very special episodes with all the guardrails removed. The new 10-episode season, which launches on Netflix on Dec. 4, blitzes through hot-button issues including hormone blockers, code switching, and sexual coercion. While the characters still largely survive their trials in one piece, the show’s writers avoid pulling punches, delivering tightly written but narratively messy plots that acknowledge the traumas of growing up.
This season picks up right where season 3 left off, with best friends Nick Birch (series co-creator Nick Kroll) and Andrew Glouberman (John Mulaney) furious at each other after Andrew caught Nick kissing his ex-girlfriend Missy (Jenny Slate of Saturday Night Live and Bob’s Burgers). When Andrew’s overbearing dad Marty (Richard Kind of A Serious Man and Red Oaks) nixes Andrew’s plan to skip sleepaway camp to avoid seeing Nick, the boys and their other best friend, Jessi Glaser (Jessi Klein), are shipped off to spend the summer confronting their insecurities.
Wet Hot American Summer famously captured the oversexed absurdity of the sleepaway-camp experience, but by centering the story on the campers rather than the counselors, the early episodes of Big Mouth season 4 are able to explore just how fraught camp can be. The characters juggle complicated social dynamics as they try to reconnect with people they haven’t seen in a year, some of whom have stayed close together throughout that time due to physical proximity, and some who have fundamentally changed since the previous summer.
That conflict is perhaps most crystalized in Natalie (Josie Totah) who’s transitioned during the intervening year. Her old guy friends are far too interested in the state of her genitals, while the girls want to push her into gender roles she isn’t comfortable with. Hormone monsters — creatures embodying the turmoil of puberty by constantly encouraging the kids to masturbate, make out, and yell at their parents — have always been the funniest part of the show, but Natalie’s is portrayed as genuinely monstrous, as an adolescent flood of testosterone threatens to transform her into someone she isn’t, until she fights back with hormone blockers.
Camp is also home to plenty of physical and emotional battles for the main cast. Jessi deals with the embarrassment of heavy menstruation, while Nick is so insecure about exposing his penis in the public boys’ shower that he skips bathing and gets brutally teased by the whole bunk. His feelings manifest through the season’s standout character: Tito the Anxiety Mosquito (Maria Bamford).
Big Mouth was at its absolute best in season 2 when David Thewlis’ Shame Wizard gave the show a central villain, and Tito replicates that effect in season 4 by attacking each character for their problems in a way that showcases the universality of their experience. For Nick, anxiety means trying to shut down his emotions and lock out everyone around him to protect himself, forging a persona for himself dubbed “Nick Starr” who will find happiness in fame even though he knows that path would be hollow and lonely. Andrew grapples with OCD tendencies, to the point where when his complicated masturbation ritual is interrupted, he blames himself for his grandfather’s death. His neurotic parents don’t help when they explain that the death wasn’t his fault, because “Death is completely random and uncontrollable and it lurks around every corner.”
Poor Jessi, who’s been struggling to deal with the crushing weight of Depression Kitty (Jean Smart) since season 2, is also plagued by Tito as she struggles with her parents’ divorce and trying to fit into a new school in New York. The turmoil lands her in a classic abusive relationship, as an older guy tries to isolate her from her friends and push her into sex she isn’t ready for. Yet as always, Big Mouth tempers the heavy emotional stories with plenty of lewd absurdity, with Jessi seeing a penis for the first time and cracking up at its odd appearance and inexplicable Long Island accent.
Netflix’s Sex Education comes close to this sort of earnest approach to sexuality and evolving identity, but while that show relegates many of its issues to the sex-therapy session of the week, Big Mouth’s writers ground them in the show’s large supporting cast to let the plots progress into full arcs. Matthew (Andrew Rannells) has been out and proud since season 1, but as he gets sexual with his first boyfriend, he has to deal with the fact that his mother believed he was just indulging his brief gay phase, and that he’d eventually wind up with a woman. Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) has spent most of the show humping pillows and couch cushions, but learns how to bring pleasure to a real woman in a sequence hilarious depicting him as Jayzilla, a hulking monster that must be gently guided through the gates of his girlfriend’s vagina through the power of listening.
Missy has one of the most powerful arcs of the season, derived from the show recasting the character. After 2020’s summer of racial-justice protests, Netflix announced that Jenny Slate was stepping down from voicing the biracial character, and Big Mouth writer Ayo Edebiri was taking over the role. But instead of making the change without comment, the writers deliver a season-long arc about Missy exploring her racial identity with the help of her Black cousins in Atlanta, who encourage her to shed her beloved overalls, test out a new hairstyle, and confront the racism her parents have tried to protect her from.
Back at school, Missy is guided through this journey by cool kid Devon (Jak Knight), who teaches her about code-switching through a musical number explaining “when you’re young and Black, you develop a knack for putting the world at ease.” Devon’s pushed to grow too, as he’s confronted on his desperate desire to please his White peers in a sequence framed as a recreation of T’challa and Killmonger’s duel for rule of Wakanda in Black Panther.
By not taking anything particularly seriously, the writers of Big Mouth have found the perfect way to deal with difficult subjects. It’s a shame most parents will find the show too crude to actually show their adolescent kids, because there are legitimately valuable lessons throughout the series, delivered without the pandering or faux simplicity of a traditional sitcom. As it is, Big Mouth mostly provides a way for adults to laugh while reliving the scarring moments of their youth and finding new ways of looking at issues that remain relevant long after puberty ends. The nuance and humor Big Mouth delivers makes every episode truly special.
Big Mouth season 4 is now available on Netflix.