“Big Mouth” earned early praise for deftly blending unabashedly crude humor with endearing care for its young characters. The Netflix animated series about a group of pre-teens going through puberty showed it all, from human-sized penises playing basketball to the disgusting edible called “cream crackers.” Season 2 arguably goes even further, including an intimate song-and-dance sequence featuring dozens of naked women going full frontal and one of the main characters’ being de-pantsed (underwear and all) next to his proudly nude father. Yet the show’s heart never stops beating, even when the horny little kids’ blood is rushing elsewhere.
Despite the language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, and cartoonish violence (Garrison Keillor’s severed head has taken on added relevance given last year’s allegations), “Big Mouth” is not an adult animated series. It’s about kids, for kids (of a certain age), and the older viewers are there to learn, remember, or both. Even more than before, Season 2 is weird and proud of it; a living embodiment of putting it all out there, despite what people might think. In a very real way, these episodes are a form of activism, and in a season focused on teaching kids how to separate shame from guilt, it’s downright powerful. A Peabody Award would not be out of order.
If the Hormone Monster was the creature tasked with setting the tone of “Big Mouth” Season 1, then the Shame Wizard fills the role in Season 2. Don’t worry: Nick Kroll’s devilish creature with a heart of gold (and a bag of pet penises) isn’t absent from Netflix’s sequel, and neither is his feminine counterpart Connie, brought to delectable life by Maya Rudolph. They’re still helping Andrew (voiced by John Mulaney) and Jessi (Jessi Klein) explore their burgeoning sexualities, guiding each pubescent junior high schooler through their natural urges and inexplicable mood swings.
But after spending the series’ first 10 episodes introducing these children to their changing bodies, Season 2 ushers in the emotional consequences to the havoc raged by budding hormones: shame. Andrew feels shame for constantly masturbating. Nick (voiced by Kroll) feels shame for his underdeveloped body. Jessi feels shame for, well, a lot of things. Her parents are splitting up, and she feels responsible, but she’s also angry. Angry that her parents are splitting, angry that her friends are paying attention to other girls, angry that she’s not an exemplary feminist all the time. And then she feels shame for all of that.
Coaxing this ballooning throng of indignity is the Shame Wizard, voiced to perfection by David Thewlis. Looking like a cross between Professor Snape, a Dementor, and an older, goblin-eared version of Thewlis himself, the Shame Wizard sneers and cackles his way into exacerbating the emotions of every confused kid. In one of the series’ better songs (written and composed by Mark Rivers), the Shame Wizard flies through the night sky casting a shadow on all the embarrassed kiddos. “How I hate to be a bummer, but my dear I’ve got your number, and I’ll whisper it forever in your ear,” he sings, adding “You’ve got no one but yourself to blame,” and “If you start to burn too hot, I’ll dose your filthy flame.”
In the world of “Big Mouth,” the Shame Wizard exists because he believes he’s serving a vital function: Children need to feel ashamed of what they do in order to distinguish right from wrong. If Jessi steals a lipstick from a local store, she should be ashamed of herself. But the problem brilliantly addressed by writers and co-creators Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin is that shame can go too far. Often, children are too embarrassed to ask questions or ill-informed about what’s routine when growing up. Sometimes, adults just get in the way.
Early in the season, Andrew searches for forgiveness through religion. He wants to make amends for breaking social norms (and offending one of his friends), but his rabbi can’t help him. “Jews, we do not feel shame. We feel guilt,” he’s told, before being sent to a Catholic priest. That doesn’t work either, as Andrew’s “penance” of five prayers doesn’t make him feel like he’s learned anything.
Finding inadequate advice from adults is a common and insightful theme of “Big Mouth;” no one tells these kids what they really need to hear. In this instance, Andrew needs to be told what he’s doing is normal; that his urges are driven by biological prompts everyone goes through. More specifically, he needs to know that shame is different than guilt, as the former describes feeling bad about yourself and the latter is related to specific instances. He should feel guilty about where he masturbated (in his friend’s bathroom while thinking about his friend’s sister), but not that he felt the need to do so.
The eloquence with which “Big Mouth” illustrates these differences and guides its audience to a moral resolution is beyond admirable. It’s a valuable service for any kids whose parents let them watch, as well as a keen lesson for wary adults. By normalizing experiences many kids feel embarrassed about, the series is actively advocating for their emotional well-being. Anyone who watches these episodes should feel a little less self-conscious, if not also a significant boost in self-esteem. Even if they don’t, the show’s sharp wit, exuberant voice work, and wild imagination are more than enough to provide top-shelf entertainment. It’s a win-win, so why not give “Big Mouth” a Peabody and an Emmy?
“Big Mouth” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.