The third season of Netflix’s much-loved animated comedy Big Mouth is just as gross, uncomfortable, and hilarious as the previous two. It admirably rises to the challenge of tackling puberty and adolescence through a lens that is simultaneously totally real and completely surreal, equal parts brutal honesty and utter absurdity. There are moments when it stumbles away from the best part of its narrative to chase bizarre non sequiturs and odd meta jokes about the current state of television. But the show is nothing less than brilliant when it keeps its focus on how much it sucks to be a middle school kid stuck in that catastrophically awkward period between childhood and adulthood, trying to navigate an increasingly complicated social minefield while your newly-awakened sexuality is making you behave like a crazy person and your body is betraying you at every turn.
The core cast of characters – Nick (Nick Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), Jessi (Jessi Klein), Missy (Jenny Slate), and Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) – still remain at the center of the show’s universe. But season three does an admirable job of developing some of the supporting cast, including several characters who had previously been treated as one-dimensional jokes. Matthew (Andrew Rannells), the only openly gay student at Bridgetown Middle School, gets a heartfelt and robust story arc as he struggles to make a connection with Aiden (Zachary Quinto), a boy he met during a chance encounter in the drug store. The episodes dealing with the normally-confident Matthew’s fumbling advances leading up to his first date with Aiden are a highlight of the season. Big Mouth is primarily told from a heterosexual perspective, so it was refreshing to see the writers develop Matthew’s role into something more than just a vehicle for catty jokes. Lola (Kroll), the perpetually shouting and defiantly self-assured girl who is normally little more than a target for variations of fat jokes, is given some actual pathos when the creepy teacher Mr. Lizer (Rob Huebel) develops a questionable relationship with her. We even get an episode told entirely from the point of view of Caleb (Joe Wengert), although we don’t realize it until the end.
Much like the previous two seasons, Season Three is a mix of one-off episodes that are relatively standalone, and narrative episodes that advance the overarching storyline of the series. Two standalone episodes, involving Nick accompanying Andrew on a family trip to Florida and the Ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele) telling the boys about his experiences going through puberty in the early 20th century, are among the most memorable of the season.
Meanwhile, the narrative episodes showcase a surprising descent for Andrew, as he grows increasingly resentful of both his friends and of the girls at school in general. Andrew’s rage at his own awkwardness combined with his anger towards Missy’s rejection actually leads him to attend a white supremacist meeting, albeit unintentionally. The show fumbles a bit here, because while misogynistic rhetoric is frequently used as an indoctrination tool by white supremacist groups on the internet, the writers aren’t quite willing to address that fully – the scene is played completely for laughs and is never revisited, despite the fact that Andrew continues harboring the same feelings that led him to the meeting in the first place. But the show deserves credit for tackling a controversial subject by taking one of its likeable lead characters and slowly turning him into a toxic jerk, when the more obvious and safe choice would’ve been someone like Jay.
Instead, Jay experiences radical character growth in the opposite direction, which is equally unexpected and equally well-done. Missy struggles with her newfound assertiveness, which is at odds with her ingrained desire to avoid confrontation and keep the peace. Nick continues to lash out at his parents, and Jessi battles to keep the Depression Kitty at bay in the middle of an increasingly chaotic home life.
Other season highlights include great cameos by Ali Wong as a new pansexual student, David Cross as Andrew’s shiftless uncle, Chelsea Peretti as a sentient cellphone, and admirably game performances by all five stars of Netflix’s Queer Eye. There’s also a fresh batch of delightful musical numbers once again written by Mark Rivers, including a guffaw-inducing song about Florida and a full-blown musical adaptation of the 1994 erotic thriller Disclosure.
As in previous seasons, the show takes some bizarre detours. The wonderful Duke Ellington episode randomly diverges into a subplot about a bunch of furry, sentient penises fighting World War I. Characters frequently turn to the camera to make some crack about Netflix and streaming as a platform, including one truly baffling moment wherein Maury the Hormone Monster (Kroll) looks right out at us and declares Amazon to be the best streaming service with no detectable punchline. Paradoxically, the weakest moments of Big Mouth, an animated comedy, are when it veers off course to do jokes for the sake of jokes.
But its heart is always in the right place, and the show’s commitment to being unflinchingly honest about the confusing (and sometimes exhilarating) experience of puberty and adolescence is what makes it succeed. It’s gross, but not without purpose; painful, but rarely cruel; heartfelt, but never cheesy. It’s also really fucking funny.