Coming-of-age stories about tormented, horny teens have been popular for centuries. What is Oedipus, after all, if not the tale of the world’s worst way to lose your virginity? Recently, though, a new and decidedly less tragic breed of puberty story is on the rise, with an emphasis on “coming of age” as a double entendre. These shows are dirty, and are as funny as TV has been in recent years. But they’re also a new strain of teen comedy, where dick jokes coexist with a social conscience.
On Friday, Netflix released a Valentine’s Day special episode of Big Mouth, a gleefully filthy cartoon about a group of lovable seventh graders. (I’m certain it’s the only show ever to feature both a talking vagina and a talking, uh, pillow filled with jizz.) The show’s first episode opens with protagonists Nick (Nick Kroll, one of the show’s creators) and Andrew (John Mulaney) in a sex ed class, and it follows their pals Jessi (Jessi Klein), Missy (Jenny Slate), and Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) as they sprout pubes, get their periods, and begin to masturbate, date, and think about their sexual identities. Irreverent visuals and dirty jokes balance out the show’s underlying empathy for its hormonal, bewildered characters, balancing the sweet and freaky to create a show that is simultaneously obscene and wholesome.
It pairs well with another recent Netflix release, the British show Sex Education, which is also a sex-obsessed teen comedy. (The Cut’s Anna Silman referred to this rising genre of show as “puberty TV,” an apt moniker.) The Sex Education kids are in sixth form, or high school, which puts them at least three or four years older than the Big Mouth characters. This means most characters are markedly more mature; the show opens with two of its characters doing it doggy style, and another gets an abortion later on in the season. But protagonist Otis (Asa Butterfield) lags behind his peers, not yet emotionally ready to even masturbate, and just like Big Mouth, the show offers up a terrific blend of raw, raunchy set pieces and progressive, empathetic storytelling. There are other, more specific similarities that draw attention to how well these shows work as companion pieces—both main characters have flamboyantly sex-positive parents, the dirtbag comic-relief characters who have troubled relationships to their fathers both realize that they are not straight, and each show has a season finale centered around an actual physical climax. Sex Education’s troublemaker, Adam (Connor Swindells), who is suspended after dropping trou in the cafeteria, is also reminiscent of another weiner-fixated Netflix teen galoot, American Vandal’s Dylan (Jimmy Tatro). And while American Vandal is primarily a spoof of true-crime shows, it also shares with Sex Education and Big Mouth a ribald, mischievous perspective of teen sexuality.
This Friday, Hulu released its own entry into the puberty-comedy pantheon with Pen15, a 10-episode show about Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle), two best friends entering seventh grade in 2000. Like Big Mouth, it uses a clever device to make a narrative about the sexual lives of its young protagonists more palatable. Erskine and Konkle, who created the comedy, are both in their early 30s, but they play characters based on their younger selves among a supporting cast made up of actual middle schoolers. But while Big Mouth’s cartoon status has freed the show up to be almost limitlessly daring, the gimmick Pen15 uses to deal with the perilous terrain of adolescent lust isn’t much more than that: a gimmick. Erskine and Konkle are both incredibly good at acting like 13-year-olds, but the overall result of placing adult actors with children produces an off-kilter effect, especially since these characters are young for their age, still happy to play with toys. The show’s attention to period-specific detail will activate the nostalgia pleasure centers of many millennials’ brains—its depictions of AOL chat rooms and the perilous social ritual of choosing your designated Spice Girl are both impeccable—but the stunt casting adds an extra dose of awkwardness to a show that really doesn’t need it, subjecting the audience to watching a grown woman make a child cry about his penis size. This would be forgivable, as almost anything is, if the show were funny enough. But while Pen15 has a number of worthwhile moments and individual story lines—Maya’s fear of her dead grandfather watching her masturbate taps into a relatable adolescent nightmare in a zippy subplot with very funny visuals, for example—it doesn’t dazzle like its genre companions.
That I can even complain about a puberty comedy being merely decent shows what a fertile period we’re in for this type of show. For a long time, coming-of-age stories with an emphasis on sex tended to be dramas, if not melodramas. “When we pitched the show, one of our phrasings of it was that it was a perverted Wonder Years,” Nick Kroll told me. The most beloved TV shows with lots of teen sex, from the soapy Dawson’s Creek and Gossip Girl to earnest outings like My So-Called Life, had a humorlessness about their frisky, underage characters. Long-running Canadian soap Degrassi was perhaps the frankest teen show about sexuality, but it was even more melodramatic than its American counterparts, with plotlines about gonorrhea, teen pregnancy, and, uh, impotence issues stemming from paralysis, that were played for gasps, not laughs. Freaks and Geeks is the most obvious precursor to this genre, as it was a psychologically realistic comedy about teens, but the short-lived and much-loved show was a fairly tame network outing. Main freak Lindsey Weir (Linda Cardellini) ends the show a virgin, as do all of the geeks.
The 1980s gave us the first golden age of teen sex comedies in film, and today’s puberty comedies certainly owe this era a debt for pushing the limits of raunchiness. However, many of the hits are dragged down by questionable sexual politics. Porky’s is basically propaganda for men’s rights activists, and even former John Hughes muse Molly Ringwald has lamented the sexist streak that mars the director’s string of charming teen comedies. As years went on, the teen sex comedy didn’t quite grow up, but it did grow to be more inclusive. The American Pie series, which started in 1999, had a more egalitarian view of teen horniness. Most recently, 2018’s Blockers, an underrated teen sex comedy, had female characters with refreshingly pragmatic perspectives on losing their virginity.
The new crop of sex comedies on television are equally enhanced by their progressive streaks. Sex Education, as the title suggests, is essentially a celebration of learning about sexuality; Otis’s mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a friendly sex therapist who offers her son condoms, and when teenager Maeve (Emma Mackey) gets a surgical abortion after an unplanned pregnancy, the show treats it as a vulnerable but normal moment, neither worth shrugging off nor moralizing. Big Mouth is similarly interested in accurate representations. “We talked to a bunch of sex educators,” Kroll said, noting that the Big Mouth team has also talked to high schoolers directly to clarify which issues resonate with them most. A first-season episode of the show focused on the educational book Girls & Sex, and a second-season episode centered on the services Planned Parenthood provides. In both cases, the show stayed lewd but pointedly delivered progressive social messages.
The rise of streaming services has led to the creation of so much television that it is impossible to watch it all. As my colleague Alison Herman has argued, there are few shows that still feel like part of a TV monoculture, where everyone watches at once. People can tailor what they watch very neatly to their interests. While this makes watercooler shows rare, it also has some major upsides. This varied and fractured creative landscape is more welcoming to the risqué, niche, and innovative. This manifests in shows that are not only more frank about sex, but also take other creative leaps. Sex Education, for example, has made bizarre but fascinating world-building decisions by setting the action in present-day England but modeling the high school and clothing after ’80s America, producing an uncanny and wholly unique sense of place and time. Meanwhile, a remarkable aspect of Big Mouth that isn’t often discussed is how it breaks from a long-standing cartoon tradition by having its animated characters age. Unlike Bart Simpson, Doug Funnie, or Arthur, these middle schoolers aren’t suspended in time. “It’s a show about puberty and about kids changing, and so it feels like a disservice to not have them change. We have story lines and things happening that point to them slowly changing,” Kroll said. “We feel like there are tons of stories to tell about puberty and about these kids, so we’re not rushing them through middle school, but we’re also acutely aware that this is a show about how kids change.”
This influx of stories that treat teenage sexual awakening like the deeply ridiculous time it is are a positive side effect of television’s current awkward phase; there might be way too much TV, but there’s also more room now to get freaky. Like puberty, I’m sure this chaotic phase of television development will mellow out eventually. Right now, though, streaming TV’s ample teen sex-comedy offerings are themselves a reminder that growth spurts can produce good things.