In July, director Bo Burnham told Variety about his movie Eighth Grade, “I didn’t want to make it R-rated. I just wanted to portray the way kids’ lives are.” And that’s exactly what he did, following 13-year-old protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates — and stumbles into — the social pitfalls that come with adolescence: the awkward socializing, the sexual pressure, the general challenge of just being a kid in the age of social media. Rather than a consciously dramatic or outrageous depiction of teen/preteen life, Eighth Grade feels true. And for its commitment to authenticity, the MPAA judged the movie as inappropriate for anyone under 17 to see sans chaperone.
R, for Restricted, is a nebulous rating; some movies are more R than others. Some have gore, some have nudity, some have thrusting too vigorous for virgin eyes. Others, like Eighth Grade, mostly just exceed the allotted f-word quota. But the R rating essentially gated off actual eighth-graders from the reality they faced every day, as if they were standing in line for their own lives and judged not tall enough to ride.
In response to the MPAA’s decision, writers penned op-eds; distributor A24 held screenings that didn’t enforce the rating. But nothing changed, and even if it had, it wouldn’t have addressed the larger problem: The content standards imposed on American theatrical releases and network TV became archaic long ago. The good news is that in this new media ecosystem, there is already a growing category of movies and series, like Big Mouth and American Vandal, that frankly tackle the messy realities of teen life, and — thanks to airing on Netflix and other streaming platforms — are freely accessible to the viewers those stories will be most meaningful to.
The most extreme, successful example of this kind of story is actually a cartoon. Big Mouth, now in its second season on Netflix, is animated in faintly grotesque style, partially to accommodate its bizarre flights of fancy — various monsters, a moving Statue of Liberty that speaks with a French accent, a pregnant pillow, the attic-dwelling ghost of Duke Ellington — but also, as one meta joke in the first season’s finale observes, to get away with the comically graphic content. Created by the team of Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett, and very loosely based on the adolescence of Kroll and Goldberg, the show depicts puberty in no uncertain terms. Dirty, dirty thoughts fly as freely as the genitalia.
Of Big Mouth’s main duo, Nick (voiced by Kroll) is a late bloomer and anxious about that fact, while his best friend Andrew (John Mulaney) is coming along much more quickly. Andrew is taller; he’s got a little bit of a mustache coming in and, most importantly, a furry, phallic hormone monster named Maury (Kroll again, with enough gravel in his voice to pass for Will Arnett), who has manifested to articulate his sexual urges. Maury obsesses over the sexual nature of anything from hanging bathing suits to cat clocks, whispering filthy nothings into Andrew’s ear to encourage him to masturbate.
If all of this sounds like a crass gimmick, the show tempers its baseline audacity with a surprisingly humane and matter-of-fact approach to the sexual subject matter. Maury isn’t a villain; as much as the urges he represents are meant to be uncontrollable and kind of scary, he mostly just hangs out in a way Andrew comes to accept. At first, Andrew goes running to the bathroom to jerk off at the (literally) horny Maury’s every whim, but eventually he learns to ignore Maury’s comments about anyone and anything in the vicinity that’s even slightly arousing. Big Mouth dials up its material for comedic purposes, but it also presents these changes and urges as things that happen to most of us. As a giant singing tampon styled after R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe croons in a musical interlude, “Everybody bleeds.”
Big Mouth’s raunchy comedy seems far removed from the comparatively sweet Eighth Grade, but both share a deep empathy for what kids go through at this age. The unfortunate caveat for Eighth Grade’s empathetic power is that, by the rules of the MPAA and the theaters that comply with them, it’s limited to the younger viewers who attend with an adult, who wait until it hits streaming services, or who outright sneak in. Streaming services like Netflix, on the other hand, allow a show like Big Mouth a degree of freedom that wouldn’t fly outside pay-cable, subject to no real restrictions outside the TV-MA rating displayed onscreen, and any parental control that might block it from young eyes.
Netflix doesn’t hide its parental controls, and includes the option to make kid-friendly user profiles, but the service is also clearly aware of the demographic broadness of its reach. You can see that in the case of a show like the controversial smash hit 13 Reasons Why. Also rated TV-MA, the series follows the aftermath of a high school girl’s suicide as she outlines her reasons for killing herself via a series of cassette tapes. Loading the first episode will now launch a disclaimer video, in which the various actors playing teen characters face the camera and warn that what’s to follow is some pretty heavy stuff — involving suicide, sexual assault, substance abuse, etc. — that might not be “for you.”
The warning is useful regardless of the viewer’s age, but the use of young actors who urge viewers to, among other things, “watch it with a trusted adult” or “reach out to a parent” acknowledges the show’s availability to a younger demographic. 13 Reasons Why, as a show, is not particularly adept at the stated goal of tackling heavy themes — the warning itself is a response to detractors who accused it of glorifying suicide — but it demonstrates the potential educational value these shows can have for young audiences.
That’s not to say that Big Mouth is explicitly “for kids,” like some kind of profane Sesame Street. In an interview with Uproxx, Kroll is careful to point out, “Our intention, first and foremost, is to be funny. And if there are messages that come out of the stories we tell, then that’s like a huge bonus.” Plenty of parents, too, would balk at the nature of its comedy, but the show as a whole can be instructive for a wide audience; the way Big Mouth handles its characters and the way it normalizes their pubescent behaviors is bold and downright valuable. There’s even a whole episode of skits that provide a badly needed explanation of the cancer screenings, contraceptives, and STD tests provided by Planned Parenthood without once losing sight of the show’s proudly vulgar sense of humor. In another interview with the A.V. Club, Kroll says, “The whole reason we made the show is because we believe that the more that this stuff around puberty and sexuality is talked about, the healthier people will be.”
Though the lead characters in Big Mouth have yet to discover sex with another person, they all think about it, and they’re all more or less open with one another on the subject in ways that society at large rarely is. To reflect this, the guidance that they receive tends to be less from functional adult figures (the omnipresent Coach Steve, for example, is a disaster of a person who still has his own hormone monster, an ancient creature whose burbling, toothless speech comes with subtitles) than the weird apparitions of their hormone monsters and Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele). The second season introduces the most outwardly malevolent of these, the Shame Wizard (a wonderful David Thewlis, who gets to say things like “hella faded”), and he terrorizes the kids with a heightened self-consciousness for their urges and actions.
That these characters are visible to all the kids, yet invisible to most of the adults, instills that dual sense of camaraderie and loneliness. They’re all going through some version of the same things. Nick and Andrew’s friend Jessi (Jessi Klein) deals with her parents’ impending divorce, and the difficulty of upholding her feminist ideals in the face of irrational pubescent thought processes, urged to act out by her own hormone monster, Connie (Maya Rudolph); Matthew (Andrew Rannells) feels isolated as the only openly gay kid in school. And these kids can relate to one another, but they’re often left to sort out their problems alone by talking to monsters and ghosts and wizards in attics and bedrooms and bathrooms.
Though puberty is in the rearview mirror for most of its high school cast, the Netflix mockumentary American Vandal takes a similarly close look at growing up. The joke of the series is the way it transplants the true-crime format of shows like Making a Murderer to the low stakes of high school. The first season’s mystery is about who spray-painted penises on 27 faculty vehicles; the second season investigates, among other things, who spiked lemonade with laxatives to incite a catastrophic schoolwide event called “the brownout.”
What’s so brilliant about American Vandal is how quickly the joke evolves into something legitimately engrossing. In the first season, prankster Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) has been expelled and awaits trial for the vandalism, while the second season’s Kevin McClain (Travis Tope) has confessed and is under house arrest. If the show’s setting is funny to us, it’s quite serious for the characters; high school is where they have to live their lives, vie for the approval of their peers. High school is everything. It soon becomes clear that the answers to each season’s mysteries, despite being what drive you to watch multiple episodes at a time, aren’t quite the point — the documentary-style look at the characters’ lives is the point, with the way it shines a light on the different cliques and codes of high school in a way that ultimately (and humorously) illuminates the pressures of a modern teenage social life.
American Vandal presents a complex system, down to the number of Y’s you put in a “hey” text, and a surprisingly in-depth portrait of multiple characters to sell its thesis: These teenagers are made and unmade by a universal desire for attention and approval, the simple difficulty of even existing among other people. And it shows, with uncomfortable precision, what happens when people don’t fit into that system. When Dylan’s plans for the future are scrubbed away as surely as a dick drawing gets scrubbed off a car, he surrenders to his label as a screwup and gets caught committing his own act of vandalism. Kevin, on the other hand, seems to accept that being constantly teased and singled out as the class weirdo is still, to him, better than not being seen at all. Punctuated with jokes about penises and poop though it may be, American Vandal is just as instructive about the roles people, particularly teens, are forced into and the happy, functional faces they must put on — in both their digital and analog lives — to secure continued acceptance.
Both of these shows are — and are meant to be — entertaining and meaningful for adult viewers as well as young ones. American Vandal is a sympathetic look at social media that presents it as more than the condensed narcissism it’s often reduced to; Big Mouth’s messages of sex and body positivity transcend age groups, as do its episodes about consent and Planned Parenthood.
But where these works seem most necessary is to the audiences still figuring it all out — the teens whose struggles are so rarely represented in such an understandable way, whether by the sly social observation of American Vandal or the broad, cartoon comedy of Big Mouth. By engaging younger audiences through a frank, if comedic, approximation of the issues they face every day — without worrying about who’s old enough to buy a ticket — these series are offering a profound empathy, freely accessible to the people who need it most. ●
Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at the Awl, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, The Verge, Polygon, and others. He is based somewhere in Ohio.