Big Mouth - This Is Us, Right?

Big Mouth

2017

too many creators/directors/stars to list

3 out of 5 embarrassing fantasies about your hot cousin


In this, the great 21st century board game, you can appeal to reason.  You can appeal to compassion, dignity, logic, morality, selfinterest, and empathy.  You can even appeal directly to greed. Each one is a perfectly legal move for advancing you a little closer to winning, whatever that means.  But an appeal to sanctity? Chancy. As a rule, we of the dollar have faith in faithlessness. Certain touchstones are sacred---flags, churches, super bowl sunday---and straying outside this limited zone like some blog mendicant is probably illadvised.  Can you imagine arguing that your relationship with your cat is sacred?  No matter how deep and respectful your love for mr pibbles, this ain’t ancient egypt.  

But here we are.  One unwise appeal coming up. Let’s roll the dice.

Big mouth is animated netflix original tv show about puberty.  The main characters are all getting the first heady, pungent whiff of the glandular shitstorm just over the horizon, with predictable results.  Crushes, drama, gossip, relationships, doubt, heartbreak, anger, fluids.

In style it’s not far from the simpsons or family guy.  In substance, however, both of these shows are rooted in nuclear family sitcom tropes, whereas big mouth largely shys away from formulaic characterizations.  You’d have trouble predicting a character’s behavior based on their gender or familial role. Each character is an individual.

In tv terms, its cleverest innovation is personifying puberty’s shadow as actual, standalone characters---the hormone monsters.  Two central characters, andrew (john mulaney) and jessi (jessi klein) each get a tall, flurry, impulsive beast as a companion (voiced by nick kroll and maya rudolph, respectively).  They outright say and do all those things our glands silently push for---an id-ified sexual snuffleupagus, if you will. Their ontology is vague, but they’re undeniably great characters.  Sort of the hobbes to jessi’s/andrew’s calvin.

It’s a consistently funny, smart show, and the jokes run the gamut from fraser to beavis and butthead.  And it’s unique in its forthright treatment of periods, erections, masturbation, sex, nighttime emissions, and associated puberty woes.  One memorable scene shows jessi and her friend missy (jenny slate) going to a korean spa where everyone does a fullfrontal song&dance number about not being ashamed of your body.  It’s funny and it manages to leave lewd behind in favor of heartening. This sort of thing is uncommon in television, but it’s just another day in the life at big mouth.

So.

Big mouth is funny, clever, and divergent.  Pointed sex positivity anchors the show. It’s refreshing to watch.  And also...troubling? As a blunt object, big mouth is rated family guy+.  It goes out of its way to be just about as explicit as possible. There’s always that heart of gold, just encased in an oozing corpus of dick jokes.  But this also ain’t the 50s---dick jokes are practically a sign of cultural legitimacy. And with bluntness comes honesty, which helps erode shame. People shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies, or for wanting to have sex, or for masturbating.

But can we do better?  Sex is, under certain conditions, more intense and raw than most other interactions.  Intuitively, sex is just different.  What can be a simple mechanical, evolutionary act has a hint of sublimation, occasionally.  Maybe it deserves to be in that slim category of things we take as holy. Maybe it deserves to be approached with some reverence.  

But then again, what do we treat reverently, really?  Freedom of speech trumps most classically sacred symbols and actions (flags can be burned, e.g.).  We can talk plainly about anything, so why should we hesitate to endorse a show that makes its living on shining an at-times-painfully bright light on all the slimy, sexy nuts and bolts?  Perhaps its existence is enough of a step in the right direction that I should saddle up my prudish horse and move on. But it seems to me that sex positivity isn’t enough---it’s far, far better than shame, of course, but big mouth’s brand of ‘hey, it’s just a thing we all do’ lacks substance.  The show’s mantra is ‘it’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just part of being human, after all.’ Taken far enough, this extends to ‘it’s nothing special, it’s just…’

It used to be taboo to talk about sex much at all on tv, maybe now it’s taboo to talk seriously about loving sex.  Tv is a weird little warped lens of our cultural attitudes on how we present ourselves. The insidious part is that as we change our tv shows to fit our current culture we can mistake imitation for reflection.  Yes, we’re always aware that we’re watching tv, but if you haven’t had many direct conversations about sex, big mouth’s brand of offhand raunchiness might seem like the only horse in the race. David foster wallace, in an essay on our modern relationship with tv, said,

‘It’s...true that to the extent one begins to view pseudo-relationships with Bud Bundy or Jane Pauley as acceptable alternatives to relationships with real humans, one has commensurately less conscious incentive even to try to connect with real 3D persons, connections that are pretty important to mental health.  For Joe Briefcase, as for many addicts, the “special treat” of TV begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed, and the original hunger subsides to a strange objectless unease.’

And tv has only become more common, more interesting, more aweinspiring since that essay. The technical proficiency has been elevated to such a degree that at times it seems like there’s nothing tv can’t depict. So if it’s not on tv, it must not be real. And our complicated connection with holiness and veneration doesn’t come across well onscreen.

It’s not that big mouth is dangerous.  It’s that, according to most reviews I found (which I’m taking as representative of the general attitude to the show), big mouth’s portrayal of adolescence is easily mistaken for actual adolescence.  

For the record, the show seems aware of my objection.  In an episode where the students give a series of sketches to teach their woefully clueless sex ed teacher about sex, one student remarks that the sketches, ‘have to be entertaining without being preachy?  That’s a fine line we have to walk.’ Whatever its other intentions, it’s meant to be entertaining. Sanctity doesn’t fit in well with that mission statement. So maybe this is all just so much unfunny preaching.


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