If there’s anything thing I learned from two 30-year-old cartoon bird women, it’s that the bonds formed among women are some of the most emotionally healing ever. Also, their apartments are messier—dirty messy, not cute messy—than the movies make it out to be.
It’s the messiness of women that Netflix’s Tuca and Bertie, created by Lisa Hanawalt, illustrator and production designer of Bojack Horseman, isn’t afraid of showing. Hanawalt’s colourful and expressive style, whether she’s drawing humans, anthropomorphic talking animals, or seven-foot tall plant-headed people, is the perfect vessel for telling stories about human nature and womanhood.
The show premiered on May 3 and its 10 episodes follows yin and yang best friends Tuca, an extroverted and impulsive toucan, and Bertie, an introverted and anxiety-ridden songbird (voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, respectively) and their adventures through dating, career shifts, moving houses, attending “Women Taking Up Space” feminist group meetings, and juggling the usual tasks of an everyday bird woman. As a massive fan of the deliciously existential Bojack, I was looking forward to seeing Hanawalt take on her own television project. Hanawalt is, as reported by California Sunday, the first woman showrunner of an adult animated series in nearly a decade and the show’s three lead characters are voiced by actors of colour (including Steven Yeun who plays Bertie’s adorable robin boyfriend, Speckle). Naturally, I was intrigued.
While its Hey Arnold!-esque opening theme song is what reeled me in, it’s the deeply relatable characters, zany atmosphere, and simultaneously lovely and painful portrayal of the female experience that kept me watching.
Predictably, there will be and already have been comparisons to Bojack Horseman, seeing as it has the same artistic style and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of Bojack, serves as an executive producer. But to think of Bird Town as an extension of the Bojack universe is simply inaccurate. Tuca and Bertie stands on its own two bird legs. The show’s surreal worldbuilding showcases an eccentric city full of turtles roaming the streets the way squirrels would, human-like dogs walking smaller dogs, and a giant snake subway system—a sentient fantasy world that feels reminiscent of a cosmopolitan Adventure Time.
One of the most amusing parts of the show is its ability to fully embrace the medium of a cartoon and not restricting itself just because it’s an adult sitcom. It occasionally switches animation styles in solitary scenes to emphasize the mood being conveyed, from claymation to paper cut-outs to puppetry. The gif-like scene transitions, bubble text on screen, and exaggerated close-ups of the character’s faces call back to old school animes like Sailor Moon.
Don’t think the show lacks a poignant tone or shys away from heavier subject matter just because it’s lighter and wackier than Bojack. It deals with mental health, sexual assault, workplace harassment, and family issues in a way that isn’t at all preachy, but instead feels natural and reflective of being human. Bertie’s panic attacks and agoraphobia explode when presented through the visuals of animation, spiral dropping the audience directly into her head. Tuca’s disappointed and uncaring broken family leave her with heaps of self-doubt, which cut extremely deep when coming from such a confident, cheerful character. No spoilers, but episode nine’s storyline in particular left me with misty eyes. In addition to the character’s individual issues, the show serves a dosage of some tough-to-swallow-but-good-for-you pills: friendships will inevitably change over time. This is not to say they will weaken and fade into dust past the age of 30, but no matter how strong a bond may be or how much history exists, personal struggles and unavoidable growth will change the people in it. It’s a part of growing up.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the show, and arguably the most important, is that Hanawalt allows her female characters to be large, loud, unsexualized, and at times gross. It lets women have apartments so unkempt that the floor is no longer visible. It lets them pig out on junk food. It lets them masturbate and have detailed sexual thoughts and STDs, or “sex bugs” without shame. It lets them freely have their breasts out—not in a salacious way, but instead in casual scenes of Tuca admiring herself in the mirror before a date, or Draca, the mysterious and beautiful neighbour with a plant for a head relaxing topless in her apartment, or Tuca and Bertie sitting on the balcony, laughing out into the night. Seeing breasts on Tuca and Bertie feels as normal as breathing, and it’s presented that way, too. It is so incredibly reviving to see nudity in a manner where women are not being performative for the male gaze—women, in fact, do not lounge about looking perfectly and carefully sexy, even alone. Instead, they play online sex games or spend hours perfecting a new recipe or rummage around in their cluttered rooms, as Tuca and Bertie do.
There are times when the show suffers from slow pacing despite how frenzied the animation is and the plot can feel a bit aimless at times, especially in earlier episodes. The former half of the season can drift from scene to scene while contained in a light storyline, like the debut episode “The Sugar Bowl”, where our protagonists have to retrieve Speckle’s special sugar bowl and end up on a goose chase around Bird Town. But it’s been some time since I last felt so refreshed, comfortable, and directly addressed watching a show about women. Mostly, I just felt seen. As I neared the end of season one, Tuca and Bertie began to feel like friends I had known for a long time. Albeit, this is mostly because I related so much to the panicky and uptight Bertie, but it was a pleasure getting to see two women as best friends being exactly that, not rivals or frenemies.
Despite some pacing issues here and there, Tuca and Bertie’s goal, like life, is not to tell an intricate journey or end each episode on a cliffhanger. It’s about the friendship and lives of two women, the little moments that make it up, and the hardships and beauty that come along with it.
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