There’s a sense of chaotic energy that runs throughout Tuca & Bertie, Netflix’s newest adult animated series. It’s a welcoming and specific sort of chaos, the kind that only feels possible in a sitcom about two 30-something “bird women” who live in a world populated by subways made of caterpillars, topless anthropomorphic plants, and dancing STDs; and where a woman’s breast (just one!), fed up with workplace sexual harassment, can pop right off and stomp away to get a drink.
That’s the world created by Lisa Hanawalt, best known for her indispensable work as a production designer and producer on BoJack Horseman. To get it out of the way: Yes, Tuca & Bertie will immediately be lumped in with BoJack Horseman (whose creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is an executive producer here), thanks to its anthropomorphic animal characters and Hanawalt’s distinctive style. But it’s also an unfair comparison because the two series are markedly different (not to mention that one is just beginning, while the other will eventually premiere its sixth season).
Tuca & Bertie is much lighter and more fantastical, and exists in a bizarre and surrealistic universe that leaps off the screen with near-tangible fun. It is more about the years between Broad City and Playing House, mixed with the absurdity of Lady Dynamite; there are even portions of its 10-episode first season that feel reminiscent of the video game Night in the Woods. But these are all more reference points than comparisons, because Tuca & Bertie — despite the existence of plenty of other comedies that seem to share some of its DNA — manages to feel like something completely new.
Tuca and Bertie are BFF birds whose friendship forms the spine of the show
Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) is a loud, confident, and charismatic toucan who gets by on a mix of charm and a “let’s just do it and see how it goes” attitude. Her best friend Bertie (Ali Wong) is an anxious, cautious, people-pleasing songbird who sometimes finds it hard to admit what she wants to herself, let alone to others. The two are perfect complements, nodding to pop culture’s long history of odd-couple duos: Tuca nudges (and sometimes shoves) Bertie forward when Bertie seems stuck, and Bertie steps in to support and care for Tuca when Tuca neglects to take care of herself. The two birds — and the two actresses — effortlessly play off each other, creating a dynamic that boosts the entire series even when the plots can feel a bit loose.
When Tuca & Bertie begins, Tuca is six months sober, and the whole series hints at a past in which Bertie was sometimes her caretaker. Now Bertie wants to live with her boyfriend Speckle (a lovable Steven Yeun), a robin and down-to-earth architect who patiently understands that he’ll sometimes be the third wheel in his own relationship. So Tuca has to move out … all the way to the floor above Bertie. The friends are somewhat codependent — naturally, Tuca suggests they install a fire pole between their two apartments — and this catalyst presents them both with an opportunity to figure out who they are as individuals and what they each want from life.
But at the same time, Tuca & Bertie doesn’t rip them apart or force them to come to these conclusions alone; rather, they’re always around to bounce ideas off each other. When Bertie decides she wants a promotion at “Condé Nest” (the show has an unabashed love of puns), Tuca is right there to help her out. When Tuca has to get rid of a bad case of “sex bugs” (the show also has an unabashed love of hilariously gross humor), Bertie joins her on a strange trip to a store to buy medicine — even though Bertie is aware that her heightened anxiety won’t mix well with the outside world.
Bertie’s generalized anxiety is apparent throughout the whole series, and the writers handle it carefully and humorously — with a big dose of relatability. (Hanawalt and her horse both have anxiety, she recently told the New York Times.) Sometimes it comes through in smaller, quieter moments, such as when Speckle makes an innocent joke and Bertie suffers a brief spiral about their relationship ending. At other times, it’s much more prominent, like when Bertie’s larger freakout in a store results in a musical number where she sings, aptly, “I’m losing my shit.” And sometimes there isn’t any obvious reason for Bertie’s anxiety to bubble up. It’s just there — which feels true to life.
All throughout, Tuca & Bertie never misses an opportunity to showcase the strong friendship between the two women; Tuca identifies and accepts Bertie’s anxious moments and knows how to help her get through them, however subtly.
For all its fantastical elements, Tuca & Bertie feels incredibly real and relatable
What’s both lovely and impressive about Tuca & Bertie is how real the show feels — even with its talking animals and surreal scenes.
That’s partly due to the world Hanawalt created, one that seems so true and inviting and with its own set of rules. But it’s also a function of the subject matter presented throughout the first season. Without giving too much away, there are plots featuring Tuca’s insecure attempts to adjust to a life without alcohol and Bertie’s frustration with the men who surround her.
The series has much to say about being a woman in the world, offering commentary on the way male coworkers take over meetings or insist that sexual remarks were nothing more than a joke; the way women second-guess their clothing, worried it’ll invite catcalls; how women are taught to shrink themselves, accept cruelty, and never assert their desires. Eventually, it steers toward longer arcs with darker plots. But it never crosses into territory that’s too dark or too sad. This is one of the show’s major feats: There’s always a carefully deployed joke, a laugh-out-loud sight gag, or inventive animation to add levity.
Indeed, Tuca & Bertie’s brilliant and lively visuals are one of its biggest strengths. Hanawalt and her team do wonderful things with animation, from the weird but casual ways in which the show’s characters twist their bodies to a scene rendered like an old-school video game to the colorful words that occasionally pop up onscreen, as if they’re jumping out at you to emphasize a specific moment. It’s a series that, when stripped down to its basics, resulted in me muttering, “This just looks so cool,” more than once. (I have also been muttering the catchy theme song to myself for about a week straight.) Every inch of every frame is detailed and deliberate; Tuca & Bertie is designed to encourage multiple viewings so you can try to spot all the background quirks, and pause to laugh at those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes.
More than anything, Tuca & Bertie is just funny. It finds humor in just about everything: in the serious subjects, in the gross things about women that are rarely talked about, in growing into your 30s, in the monotony of long-term relationships, in fun new crushes, and, most importantly, in female friendship. The bond between Tuca and Bertie is unbreakable — even during one of their arguments, Tuca makes sure to stick up for Bertie — and it’s what drives the season to its satisfying end.
Tuca & Bertie’s first season is streaming on Netflix.