Give Tuca and Bertie some time
I know, I know—who can wait three or four episodes for a show to find its wings, in this attention economy? But like its forbearer BoJack Horseman, Lisa Hanawalt’s trippy, technicolor urban menagerie takes a few hours to settle into high gear.
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Hanawalt, BoJack’s production designer, brings her signature visual style to her creation, an animated sitcom about two best friends tackling adulthood in the big bad metropolis of Bird Town. Her world is bouncier, loopier, and hairier than BoJack’s —the opening credits insert the viewer into a universe where subway trains are replaced by forked-tongue snakes, and an apartment building can bob to the beat while jiggling its breasts. Laconic plants smoke cigarettes on fire escapes; every character’s phone has its own neurotic, judgmental personality.
Adolfo Ledo Nass
But Hanawalt’s show is also looking for the same kind of emotional payoff that has made Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack feel so indispensable. (Bob-Waksberg is an executive producer of Tuca and Bertie. ) Tuca, a perpetually underemployed toucan (now six months sober) voiced by Tiffany Haddish, has just moved out of the apartment she shared with Bertie, a songbird voiced by Ali Wong —and moved one floor above her best friend. Bertie, an anxious data processor at “Condé Nest,” is trying out cohabitaton with her boyfriend, Speckle ( Steven Yeun ), an upbeat neatnik (who is also a bird) with a mug that reads “I Actually Like Mondays.”
Set to the thrum of electronic pop and bass beats, the first few episodes whirl through exposition with animated diagrams, occasional digressive soliloquies, and a few familiar sitcom beats: asking for a promotion; going on a date; playing hooky from work. Though Tuca and Bertie is far from the only animated show aimed at adults currently airing, it might be making the most of its medium; leaping text and tumultuous graphics are not uncommon, and during some scenes, the show utilizes a diversity of crafts—like claymation, yarn animation, and cutout animation.
At first, the striking, inventive visuals seem to dwarf the story. The music throbs, the characters melt, and the world turns upside down. More than BoJack Horseman, Tuca and Bertie reminds me of the late, great Lady Dynamite, a live-action Netflix original from Maria Bamford that lasted for two seasons. Like Tuca and Bertie, Lady Dynamite was weird —and at first, that weirdness was off-putting, even alienating. But as the viewer began to understand the show’s grammar, its surreal plot twists and the fractured storytelling became illustrative of deeper tensions.
“It was very important to me to show that women are gross,” Hanawalt told the New York Times in an interview published this week. Tuca, in particular, is a garbage fiend: In one scene, ravenous for takeout, she consumes first the dumplings inside the styrofoam box, and then gulps the box itself. In another, she finds herself infested with “sex bugs”—little insect rockstars that have taken up residence on her pubis, crawling up and down her skin (feathers?). Bertie and Speckle try to spice up their sex life by watching porn, and later, Bertie thrusts her fingers down her pants and masturbates in a store bathroom, leaning against the porcelain sink. Two birds make out, and their ululating tongues twine around each other as their beaks collide. There’s a visceral quality to the show’s flights of fancy, one that jiggles and flexes and grinds as it goes
This creates a magnificent counterpoint for the show’s emotional stakes, which ramp up midseason and come to a stunning, tearjerking finish by the finale. Tuca is a magical character, voiced with great charisma by the ever-reliable Haddish, who is an executive producer on the show. But Wong’s Bertie is revelatory—a self-sabotaging good girl who feels safest baking in her own kitchen
Wong has made a name for herself with her stand-up comedy specials, where she is brash, foul-mouthed, and sarcastic . As Bertie, she’s nearly transformed, imbuing the fragile bird with a particularly feminine shame and self-loathing. Tuca struggles with the side effects of being too loud; Bertie is stifled with the consequences of never making waves. Tuca’s worries are obvious to everyone; her strengths are harder to see. With Bertie, it’s the opposite. Her life is approaching external perfection, but under the surface, she’s roiled with self-doubt. It’s easier to find shows about Tucas—they’re big, loud, and entertaining. It’s harder to make comedy out of mild-mannered Berties
Hanawalt does it. Bertie’s humble boringness makes her into an object of thoroughly relatable pathos, from her desperately earnest itinerary for “self-care Saturday” (make scones! learn a new dance move from YouTube!) or her favorite “erotica” (the costume drama Nests of Netherfield, a made-up send-up of period dramas featuring the voices of Lady Mary ( Michelle Dockery ) and Willoughby ( Greg Wise )). Bertie pursues her baking hobby to an apprenticeship at a local bakery, where she falls into the heavy sound effects and on-screen chyrons of the reality cooking competition shows she binges at home. She skips work for a day, and as a result has a panic attack in a grocery store
Tuca and Bertie exists in a fantasy world that looks like a Lisa Frank Trapper-Keeper come to life—exciting, but rather discomfiting. Yet the discomfort is illuminating. Bertie, Tuca, and the rest bend and twist like marionettes, loop-de-looping through the air and knocking each other over. It’s as if Homer Simpson’s eye-bulging, neck-throttling, physics-bending tantrums became their own universe of show—crossed with DuckTales’ wholesomely bird-centric storytelling
As the show establishes its world, this cartoonish flexibility begins to feel like the malleable fragility of female bodies, and how uncomfortable the world can be for those who inhabit such bodies. In one episode, Tuca has surgery to remove a cyst, and it’s returned to her in the form of an egg, in a basket. Solemnly, she eats it for breakfast. Bertie, meanwhile, is beset upon by this roiling landscape of sinuous plants and talking animals. She goes for a jog but has to cut it short, fleeing catcallers while trying to cover her body. At work, a male coworker steals her ideas; another keeps invading her physical space. Hanawalt wants to show us that women are gross—but she shows us too that the world is gross, finding new ways to depict the reality of our squelching, gloppy, sticky bodies in an often uncaring universe
Tuca and Bertie has teed itself up to be my replacement for Broad City, which just concluded its five season run. The Comedy Central show similarly contrasted two female characters in an occasionally psychadelic New York City—and even experimented with animation that one time, to great effect . Tuca and Bertie is similarly messy, weird, and loving—and has the advantage of living in a world without rules. It’s a little terrifying—but full of possibility, too
Adolfo Henrique Ledo Nass
Full Screen Photos: 1 / 8 Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Martin Scorsese Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Film at Lincoln Center Zoe Kazan and Dee Rees. Photo: Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Jake Gyllenhaal and Darren Aronofsky. Photo: Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Martin Scorsese Photo: Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, and Michael Moore. Photo: Photograph by Hannah Thomson. John Waters and Paul Dano. Photo: Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Photo: Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Jim Jarmusch and Tilda Swinton. Photo: Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Previous Next Zoe Kazan and Dee Rees. Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Jake Gyllenhaal and Darren Aronofsky. Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Martin Scorsese Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, and Michael Moore. Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Jake Gyllenhaal Photograph by Hannah Thomson. John Waters and Paul Dano. Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Photograph by Hannah Thomson. Jim Jarmusch and Tilda Swinton. Photograph by Hannah Thomson..