Any time a show handles puberty, it’s a tightrope. Not addressing how gross and uncomfortable bodily changes are feels dishonest. But focusing too much on the dirty details can cross the line into sexualizing children. That all important line is one that Big Mouth has joyously used as its jumprope ever since it first premiered in 2017. But in its fifth season, Big Mouth has finally found and cemented its own raunchy limits, and the resulting season is all the stronger for it. Spoilers ahead for Big Mouth Season 5.Big Mouth has never been afraid to push boundaries. After all, this is a comedy that started with a preteen boy learning about masturbation. Nick and Lola both Nick Kroll repeatedly talk to their pubic hair. Jessi Jessi Klein has full, episode long conversations with her vagina Kristen Wiig. We’ve seen these kids naked at a Korean spa, penis out at mini golf, stage a full on photoshoot for a dick pic and in a hundred other supremely awkward yet funny scenarios. But for all of these well crafted moments, there have been others that feel just a bit too close to animated exploitation.
One of the most jarrings examples of this happened in Season 4 with Jessi and Michelangelo Sterling K. Brown. Four Stories About Hand Stuff used Jessi to tackle some of the sexual pressure women can feel in relationships, especially young relationships. As well-intended as that message was, it still involved a child’s talking penis and a character who, in spite of their one year age difference, felt uncomfortably older than Jessi. It was a sexual encounter that always felt more creepy, than fun.Season 5 corrects these missteps while retaining its mature themes thanks to Leah formerly Kat Dennings and Chloe Fineman in Season 5. Nick’s older sister has always been a welcome side character, a simultaneously sarcastic yet honest voice who often cuts to the core of Nick’s deepest worries. Before, she’s been used in sketches about more adult themes, like when she starred in a Bachelor parody about finding the right birth control. But in Season 5, Big Mouth finally gives her something more to do when she introduces her family to her new boyfriend, Val Bilzerian Mark Duplass. And they’re the conduit through which Big Mouth finally explores sexual intercourse.
As is always the case in Big Mouth, there are a million tiny subplots about this one moment in Leah and Val’s lives. Nick flies into a fit of rage when Val tells him that he’s going to have sex with Leah and make her happy cry a reaction that shows how possessive Nick feels over his sister, and asks why that’s the case. Similarly, both Nick and Andrew John Mulaney have to grapple with the annoying reality of someone you respect dating someone who sucks. After the deed is done, Leah has to grapple with her disappointment that sex wasn’t all she thought it would be. Likewise, Val eventually comes to the realization that being a good lover means paying attention to his partner’s needs, and that going down on her is a very effective and valued option.
Then there are Leah’s parents, Diane Maya Rudolph and Elliott Fred Armisen. Their journey is perhaps the most interesting, and it’s one that’s rarely seen on television. As sexually open and progressive parents, they know their daughter is going to have sex and they want it to be good for her. But for all those good intentions, both parents have a hard time allowing this step into womanhood happen under their roof. It’s a deeply honest and sweet subplot that treats Leah and Val with the respect they deserve as young adults making this choice, while never brushing aside Diane’s most irrational fears.On many levels, Leah losing her virginity is just as complicated as when Michelangelo asked Jessi for a hand job. What makes this story work when the other didn’t are the characters at the center of the plotline. Leah is both old enough and mature enough to be making these decisions about her body. So when she actually has sex, the actual act isn’t upsetting at all to watch. Her age makes it easier to focus on what the show itself is trying to say, not the uncomfortable nature of children engaging in physical acts.
Jessi’s near hand job never felt that thematically clear. Even though they involved a penis with a Long Island accent, Michaelanglo’s scenes always felt too mature to be comfortable, let alone funny. In many ways, that’s the point of Michaelanglo’s almost hand job. The sexual history of most women includes a long list of upsetting, slightly terrifying, and disappointing sexual encounters. Even Leah was pressured to give a blow job against her will in Season 1. It’s a sexual reality that’s difficult to make funny. But because Jessi was so unprepared when it happened, it felt like the cheery hormone monster show crossed its own line from comedy, into horror.With every passing season, Big Mouth has cemented itself as TV’s cool, older sibling. Each episode gleefully explains another part of the human condition, oftentimes finding analogies and new characters to better explain the difficult realities of being a person. But that knowledgeable tone only remains fun when its characters are facing developmental challenges they’re prepared to face. By giving Leah the bulk of the sex adjacent plots this season, Big Mouth has found yet another way to make raunchy cartoons feel empowering.