For over three years, “Big Mouth” has defied the odds.
The raunchy, animated comedy filled with dancing tampons, full-frontal cartoon nudity and musical numbers about puberty somehow managed to be as heartwarming and informative as it was hilariously cringeworthy. Between all the crude humor and dropped jaws were messages about acceptance and identity that you could only appreciate once the puberty-ridden horrors of middle school were far behind you.
In Season 4, though, that string of success seems to be on the verge of wearing out. The jokes don’t land like the used to, and neither do the underlying themes and messages, which leaves the latest edition of “Big Mouth” feeling more like a run of the mill adult cartoon rather than the leader of the genre.
Picking up right where Season 3 left off, the new season finds everyone’s favorite middle schoolers limping into the summer after a traumatic school year. Former best friends Nick (Nick Kroll) and Andrew (John Mulaney) are still at each other’s throats following Nick’s violation of the Bro Code, while Jessi (Jessi Klein) is being shipped off to the city to attend private school thanks to her parents’ divorce.
With eighth grade right around the corner, a whole new set of problems are on their way. Not only is everyone plagued by Hormone Monsters, Depression Kitties (Jean Smart) and Shame Wizards (David Thewlis), but now they’re under attack from Tito the Anxiety Mosquito (Maria Bamford), too. From the general anxiety that comes with this challenging time to something more significant like discovering yourself or accepting who you are, there’s plenty of anxiety to go around in eighth grade – and it all starts at summer camp.
The season switches things up from Bridgeton Middle and spends its first three episodes at the sleep-away summer adventure, Camp Mohegan Sun, before returning back to school. Along the way, the crew learns to deal with plenty of anxiety-inducing experiences like “the hugest period ever,” racial and sexual identity, love in all its forms, and other socially, emotionally and hormonally-charged topics.
Like most adult cartoons, “Big Mouth” thrives on its ability to tap in to modern pop culture and references. This is an area in which the series has always been a leader among its peers – taking the very best of the signature “Family Guy” cut away and elevating it – but this time around there seem to be less of these than normal, and when there are, they aren’t quite as topical. Even the all-out parodies, like this season’s “Blade Runner”-inspired sixth episode “Nick Starr,” feel random and out of place.
Another area where this season pales in comparison to its predecessors is in its handling of the series’s core characters. “Big Mouth” is at it’s best when the main players like Nick, Andrew, Jessi, Missy (Jenny Slate/Ayo Edebiri) and Jay (Jason Mantzoukis) are all together and constantly bouncing off one another. This time around the crew is oftentimes split up either geographically or emotionally, which deprives the show of the core banter and relationships that made it great in the first place.
At the expense of the main few, Season 4 introduces a handful of flashy new characters voiced by the likes of Seth Rogen or Zach Galifianakis, and while those are certainly big, eye-catching names to add to the cast, their characters don’t end up adding much to the overall show. Andrew Rannells’s Matthew, a series regular, also plays a bigger role this season after seeing significantly more screen time in Season 3. As the show’s most prominent gay character, this season finds Matthew struggling to come out to his family and dealing with all the anxiety that comes with such a big decision, and this subplot ends up being one of the season’s best.
The same can’t be said about the rest of the anxiety storyline, however. Bamford’s Tito the Anxiety Mosquito fails to bring the same twists and turns to the middle schoolers as the other creatures who have haunted them. Sure, nothing about anxiety is supposed to be fun – it’s actually super unpleasant – but there was no need to make Tito that way, too. Depression or shame aren’t fun either, but their respective characters sure as hell were.
That’s not to say Season 4 doesn’t have it’s moments, though, the best of which come in Episode 7, “Hand Stuff.” Split into four separate vignettes, the episode channels shades of the series’s very best moments, from meta fourth wall breaks to important life lessons and plenty of outrageous moments.
Ultimately, those moments are too few and far between, which keeps Season 4 from joining the top tier occupied by its fellow seasons. As its characters inch closer and closer to the light at the end of the hormone-filled tunnel, “Big Mouth” seems to be heading in the opposite direction, as its latest installment marks a significant step back.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.