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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Big Mouth season 4 shatters friendships and feelings, then embraces the pieces

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Big Mouth
Big Mouth
Image: Netflix
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In its fourth season, Big Mouth’s characters break apart so they can come back together smarter, stronger, a little bit grown up, and always a little kinder. In the season premiere, “The New Me,” Nick (Nick Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), and Jessi (Jessi Klein) are packed off, still furious, to sleepaway camp, while Lola and Jay run around Bridgeton like stray dogs and Missy takes off for Atlanta with her parents. The first gush of new characters at Camp Mohegan Sun is as heavy as Jessi’s self-consciousness in “The Hugest Period Ever.” But the lampshaded “previously on” song promises the writers know exactly what they’re doing by breaking up the kids, and the cast, just as the summer between grades does.

Nick and Andrew’s grudge from season three is compounded by rivalry over Nick’s camp buddy Seth Goldberg (Seth Rogen) and his testicular exhibitionism. Andrew’s chronic constipation is compounded by anxiety, homesickness, plain bad timing, and most of all, rancor. The denouement of this predicament is predictable but transcendent, bringing two friends together in a moment of mutual need and support in the majesty of the woods.

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Splitting up the kids also gives us a chance to meet new characters and get a glimpse of wider horizons, and not just the curving edge of Seth’s “duck egg” testicles; everyone gets a glimpse of those. Returning camper Natalie (Josie Totah), who’s transitioned since last summer and whose mother’s “extremely detailed email” to the counselors clearly went unread, describes an entry into adolescence strikingly similar to the Bridgeton Middle School classmates’: Gavin the Hormone Monster (Bobby Cannavale) battered his way into her psyche, crowing about toe hair and writing for Billboard (the ultimate symbols of burgeoning masculinity) until she walls him off by starting hormone blockers.

The writers know they screwed up with Ali’s (Ali Wong) over-simplified introduction last season; season four tries to do better by Natalie, but success is limited. Totah’s performance is both breezily assured and already plausibly tired. That doesn’t make it less awful when her camp counselors stand by while she’s dead-named and volleyed with intrusive, near-abusive questions. “Well, then, that went terribly, but at least I came out unscathed!” counselor Harry (John Oliver) says with relief, in what could be Camp Mohegan Sun’s motto. Big Mouth’s “that went terribly” is still more frank and compassionate than most shows, but in a fantastical series where the didactic lessons are as plain and passionate as the dick on Maury’s face, the cruel realism of this particular scene stings.

Back at school for eighth grade, Andrew and Nick expect to impress, elevate, and exploit seventh grade girls with their mature attentions, but Izzy and Misha (Pen15’s Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) upend that expectation when they reveal their own Fuck Gremlin, their own raunchy animated Netflix series Cafeteria Girls, and their own sexual and social agency. It’s a welcome reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around these two eighth-grade boys, or would be, except that the long narrative arc of this season explicitly revolves around one of these eighth-grade boys, complete with built-in apocalyptic flash-forwards.

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Image: Netflix
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As intense, earnest, and sometimes frankly frightening as the story gets, the biggest conflict of this season isn’t narrative, but thematic. Throughout these 10 episodes, Big Mouth tries to come to terms with its missteps and promises to match on-screen representation with behind-the-scenes representation, then circles right back to centering Nick in not just the story but the imagined future of the world. And if these other kids, outside the tight-knit circle we know best, don’t always return or become fully rounded, gosh, that’s just the way summer friendships go. But one character from camp does tag along home to Bridgeton. Tito The Anxiety Mosquito seems at first to be Natalie’s personal familiar, but as idiosyncratic as our fears are, they’re rarely ours alone. Voiced by Maria Bamford, whose manifold talents this season rival even Big Mouth’s biggest mouths and The A.V. Club’s perennial MVP Maya Rudolph, Tito eventually buzzes around almost everyone, eyes bulging, tiny terror growing. He often multiplies with terrible haste, sometimes blotting out light and hope, always droning in dread.

At first it feels like a misstep, even a step back, to cast away Missy in a separate story while her friends bristle at each other and ultimately bond at camp. It wouldn’t be the first misstep with Missy, and there are more, of small degrees, to come before the much-anticipated change in voice actor, in part because the decision to recast Missy was made (or made public) only a few months ago. That leaves Jenny Slate giving Missy her unmistakeable musical vocal trills through most of the season, with Ayo Edebiri (actor, comedian, and writer, including on Big Mouth, where she’s informed and intensely connected to Missy’s character) stepping up to the mic only in the last two episodes.

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But Missy Foreman-Greenwald has never rushed her development. Missy, who was determined to wear her kindergarten overalls to the seventh-grade Slut Walk, who incorporated her beloved Glow Worm into her earliest sexual expression, takes her time becoming the person she’s going to be, and enjoys being the person she is. Ayo Edebiri doesn’t need to be compared to anyone, and her portrayal of Missy comes as the character, already blossoming, begins to grow up. Missy’s family trip to Atlanta means meeting her cousins Lena (Lena Waithe) and Quinta (Quinta Brunson). “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Mona the hormone monstress (Thandie Newton) moans, “these girls!” Now that Missy’s ready, they’re ready to help her grow, inside and out, in a way that her parents can’t or won’t or simply don’t. They take her to her first Black hairstylist, help her choose new (fire) jeans to replace her outgrown overalls, and introduce her to thrilling, new-to-her conjugations of the verb to fuck with.

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Most of all, Lena and Quinta fire up Missy’s characteristic curiosity about the world, fueling her with allusions and references and preferences she can’t quite catch but still savors. Along with DeVon (Jak Knight), who introduces Missy to the concept of code-switching (and conveys what a highly skilled high-wire act it can be), they open up to Missy the idea that Blackness is hers to have, on her terms. Instead of the hissing, hostile Mirror Missy of previous seasons, she faces off against an ensemble of alternate selves, including an Us-style döppelganger wielding golden scissors, and learns to embrace facets of them all.

Big Mouth’s fourth season (of a guaranteed six, with a Human Resources spin-off coming) is all about embracing who you are, how you are, where you are. It is, as Missy herself would say, “not one hundred”; it’s about a 98 with two middle fingers straight up. And, like Missy herself, it’s loving, lovable, and eager to grow. Do we all make mistakes, even grievous mistakes that we live to repent? Are we all, at some level, gross and grimy and out of control? Are we all fucking weirdos with fucking weird needs and loves and desires? Do we deserve compassion and love? Does Andrew Glouberman shit in the woods? You bet he does, buddy. You bet he does.

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