Birds of a Feather
‘Tuca & Bertie’ Is Netflix’s Next Great Animated Series
‘Broad City’ meets ‘Bojack Horseman’ is yet another quirkily profound animated series for adults from Netflix, this one featuring the voices of Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong.
It’s reductive to compare two clever, bawdy comedies about female friendship to each other. But it’s refreshing that, as one era of the genre ends, marked by the series finale of Broad City at the end of March, another one, a spiritual soul sister of sorts, seems to be beginning—and it’s just as thrilling.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum noted this when Abbi and Ilana were signing off, that as Broad City, Jane the Virgin, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend say goodbye, it’s encouraging to see unique, refreshing, inquisitive new shows like Shrill, PEN15, Russian Doll, Fleabag, and, now, Netflix’s just-released animated series Tuca & Bertie arrive in their wake.
More, and as Variety’s Caroline Framke writes, these series are interested in exploring a crucial and under-excavated stage in women’s lives: not the millennial angst of a Girls or the crude coming-of-age of a Broad City, nor the post-40s existential crisis of a women of a certain age. Tuca & Bertie, especially, mines that formative transition period of being in your thirties. It just so happens to do it with two best friends who are also birds.
Tiffany Haddish is Tuca, a tall toucan who loves short shorts, explodes with confidence, and is unapologetic about the parts of her life that spark joy, but which others might have Konmari’d out of their lives as they moved out of their twenties.
Ali Wong’s Bertie is a people-pleaser and a fussbudget. She’s a data processor at Conde Nest publishing (get it?) and an amateur baker who has just moved in with her boyfriend. While she may seem like the more put-together of the two, her anxieties about life, love, and her identity prove that even the most assured birds aren’t immune to having their feathers ruffled.
They’re the yin to each other’s yang, which leads to support and inspiration, but also jealousy and resentment.
That’s the case whether they’re on a wild adventure—chasing after a bowl of sugar that contains the ashes of Bertie’s grandmother that a rogue turtle has run away with—or guiding each other through issues of romance and self-worth. In one early episode, Tuca helps Bertie break out of her shell in the bedroom while Bertie in tandem helps Tuca realize that she’s deserving of love.
That moments of such surreality—oh yeah, the grandma sugar gets baked into a cake that is then eaten—are punctuated with such raw emotion makes sense given the history of the show’s creator. Lisa Hanawalt is an illustrator and graphic designer best known for her work as producer on BoJack Horseman.
That show’s signature visual aesthetic is largely Hanawalt’s doing. Tuca & Bertie shares not only that style, but also BoJack’s masterful blending of the whimsy of animation with the darkness of human life. There’s a spirit to Tuca & Bertie, a vitally feminine and maybe even more mischievous one, that is all Hanawalt’s own.
Early episodes feature the skewering of office culture and toxic masculinity, as well as institutionalized misogyny, the pressures put on women in relationships, and the complexity of maintaining intimate female friendships when the pressures of society are designed to fracture them. The episodes are also weird and rude and real and recognizable and just really funny. Like, belly-laugh funny. There’s a talking boob.
It takes a few episodes for all that materialize. The first episode is jaunty and fun, but the real mission of the show clarifies almost right away in episode two, which has Bertie trying to psych herself up to ask for the promotion she deserves at an office where her contributions are ignored because of her gender and timid personality.
Not to bring it back to Broad City, but to totally do it, it’s a show that reminds us why Abbi and Ilana’s work was so special. It proves that goofiness and profundity can go hand in hand, that grand statements can be made with silliness—because those things aren’t dichotomies the way we’ve been programmed to think, but actually quite inextricable.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that animation is proving to be such an adept medium for distilling the social mores and issues of the current age. I mean, duh, The Simpsons is the longest running comedy for a reason. Fox has known this for a while, hence King of the Hill, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers. South Park at one point may have been the most important show on TV.
Nickelodeon shows like Spongebob Squarepants and Doug are downright existential. Then there’s film, where Disney’s animation is the source of its own theology, while Pixar’s oeuvre proves, perhaps unexpectedly, that the best way to capture and reflect the complexities of the human spirit is through animation.
But there’s something of a wave, or a golden age, or at least a pleasant trend happening now, and, of all platforms, especially on Netflix. It’s too early to say whether Tuca & Bertie will rank as highly on critics’ year-end lists as BoJack routinely does. But as far as launching first seasons go, Netflix pushed the series out of the nest, and boy does it fly.