The idea of personifying parts of the human experience, the urges and impulses that make us human, is a time-worn tradition; since time immemorial human beings have given living form to feelings, urges, and vibes, telling stories about gods and demons that convinced, helped, or tricked us into action. Netflix’s Big Mouth applied that concept to the experience of going through puberty, with the writers working out some of their past experiences through the lens of what they imagine it might be like for today’s youth. But new series Human Resources, a spinoff of Big Mouth, is both more mature and more emotional. It also mostly deals with the interior lives of adults.
Created by Jennifer Flackett, Andrew Goldberg, Nick Kroll, Kelly Galuska, and Mark Levin, Human Resources (like its predecessor) focuses on the Hormone Monsters of Big Mouth who serve as the primary nonhuman guides. But here, their relationships with humans take a backseat to their relationships with each other. That also means that other nonhuman creatures like the Shame Wizard (voiced by David Thewlis) and Depression icon Kitty Dukakis (Maria Bamford) get the space to become more than just villains.
Human Resources’ main protagonist is Emmy (Aidy Bryant), an alcoholic slacker assistant Lovebug who is thrust into the job of facilitating human affection and compassion after taking over for Becca (Ali Wong), the star client of Sonya (Pamela Adlon), one of the two Lovebugs that Big Mouth introduced in Big Mouth Season 5. The other returning Lovebug, Walter (Brandon Kyle Goodman), takes Emmy under his proverbial and literal wings while she competes with and tries to escape the shadow of her more successful friend and coworker, Rochelle (Keke Palmer), and navigate an unhealthy relationship with Dante the Addiction Angel (Hugh Jackman).
While characters make a meta joke in the premiere that the show was pitched as “Big Mouth meets The Office,” it doesn’t use the workplace mockumentary style further seen in Parks and Recreation or recent darling Abbott Elementary. It also does a better job of balancing characters’ screen time than The Office did (Creed Bratton is great, but there aren’t many episodes propelled by him). On Human Resources, almost everyone gets a chance to be in the driver’s seat. So, Petra the Ambition Gremlin (Rosie Perez) moves from the background to the foreground while coworking with Emmy, as does Pete the Logic Rock (Randall Park) while coworking with Rochelle, or Jose the Spider Receptionist (Harvey Guillén) while inciting an early episode plot. And hormone monsters familiar to fans of Big Mouth, like Maury (Nick Kroll) and Connie (Maya Rudolph), experience challenges in their personal-professional relationship. Thandiwe Newton also returns as their coworker and friend Mona the Hormone Monstress, and Jemaine Clement returns as Simon Sex, Maury’s close friend. (His fling with another character operates as one of the many small conflicts with quick and humorous endings, whose resolution allows it to balance the story off other arcs. Moreover, it lends itself to one of the show’s delightful musical numbers.)
Much like Big Mouth has an episode drawing from Goodfellas for its framing, Human Resources draws on Glengarry Glen Ross (and Wall Street) for an episode in which Gavin the Hormone Monster (Bobby Cannavale) must motivate his crew because their success numbers are falling behind. There’s also an underground fighting network that combines the plots of Rocky III and Rocky IV. Rather than be gutless copy-and-paste jobs, these are fun riffs seamlessly incorporated into the existing story, and yet, are no less outlandish. There are ongoing background gags as well, and while the show breaks the fourth wall at an even higher rate than the cartoon sitcoms of the Fox slate, this series also cares more about continuity; characters are important and, therefore, season-long arcs take precedence over the weekly and episodic. While stakes begin relatively low, they rise over time as audiences learn more about the characters, which is naturally effective storytelling. Human Resources is a very well-crafted cartoon, and Janelle Monae sings a fantastic, funky theme song to kick it all off.
I’ve heard Big Mouth referred to as obnoxious and “obvious,” but I don’t think it pretends to be profound so much as it seems to demonstrate authenticity by relating the experiences of fictionalized cartoon versions of the creators’ past selves. Even as a product of middle-aged comedians unpacking trauma and reflecting on the emotional experience of puberty, Big Mouth is often insightful about identity, romance, and sexuality—and Human Resources is at least as clever. Distinguishing its protagonists from humans somehow allows it to feel more real, because even as imaginary creatures who are centuries and millennia old, they approximate relatable and contemporary adult experiences. Simultaneously, the greater variety in challenges that the human characters face, enabled by a broader age range with a higher floor, creates a more vivid tapestry of human experience.
To that end, Human Resources is also somewhat multilingual. While primarily English, there are instances of Arabic and Farsi incorporated seamlessly. The diversity of the cast and characters (both the humans and some HR internationals at the global summit) makes the world feel closer to our own. The show also subtly toys with expected gender roles among the main human adult relationships we see, from finances to marriage proposals.
But if there’s a flaw, it’s in the missed opportunities. One example is that we never learn who is sending messages to all these creatures providing humans with impulses. It’s not a huge deal—it doesn’t detract from the show’s entertainment value—but I thought initially the series was setting up a mystery to be solved. But just as advancement from season to season in Big Mouth provided more nonhuman characters and developed their worlds and the world of the human protagonists, it’s likely that Human Resources will explore that more. (Though I do think it would be cheap for it to end with Nick Kroll explaining the show to one of the characters like he did at the end of the last season of Big Mouth. You only get to play that trick once.)
As noted above, Human Resources is surprisingly mature; and while Big Mouth could be thoughtful and touching, no episodes of that show have come close to the power of the penultimate episode of Human Resources’ first season, which is a meditation on love and loss with special guest Henry Winkler playing the living sweater, Keith from Grief. My eyes don’t water for much that isn’t allergies, and the times entertainment has misted them could likely be counted on two hands, if not one, and this cartoon pulled it off.
And yet, the show is also a riot for audience members interested in quick-fire bawdy comedy with a nice helping of intense cartoon violence thrown in. It can be really over the top, it’s incredibly blue, and it’s not for kids. Which of course means both that kids will watch it and that some adults will think it beneath them. But while Big Mouth continues to entertain, Human Resources is a worthy companion or successor, whichever way the winds end up blowing. The Human Resource creatures and their people go on emotional (and physical) journeys and grow. They accomplish this while making light of serious subject matter, balancing deep intentional moments against absurd levity without undercutting that emotional depth, and make it look a lot easier than it sounds. It’s worth watching on its own, but only by watching the episodes leading to it will an audience member achieve the full experience. And it’s fully an experience worth having.
Human Resources premieres Thursday, March 18 on Netflix.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.
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