Netflix’s newest animated comedy Tuca & Bertie starts at the moment its titular characters—two 30-something lifelong friends—cease to be roommates. After living together for years, the bird-women will live apart—Bertie is moving in with her boyfriend, Speckle, and Tuca will live on her own. It’s a rite of passage many Millennial women are familiar with, and the two reminisce about the good times while Tuca repeatedly “forgets” her final box of stuff as an apparent excuse to linger. Just minutes later, we learn Tuca will actually be living in the same building, in an apartment directly above Bertie; she’s just being neurotic, nostalgic, and understandably sad about the end of an era. These characters may be animated birds, but Tuca and Bertie are, evidently, just like us.
Tiffany Haddish voices Tuca, the fun-loving, curvaceous toucan who speaks her mind but fails to think through her decisions. Ali Wong portrays Bertie, the anxiety-ridden songbird who possesses stereotypical markers of success—stable job, cute apartment, doting boyfriend Speckle (voiced by Steven Yeun)—but is nonetheless constantly worried. Creator Lisa Hanawalt worked as a designer and producer on BoJack Horseman, and Tuca & Bertie is evidently BoJack’s spiritual successor. The aesthetics are similar, naturally, but the show’s writing demonstrates the same striking vacillations between comedy and ennui. Tuca ruins her first date with someone she likes because she panics and pushes him away. When Bertie gets a promotion, rather than glamorizing her success, Tuca & Bertie shows just how much work continues to suck—her hours are longer; one of the lights in her office is constantly flickering. Capitalism, like death, feels inescapable.
But Tuca & Bertie flips the script of traditional adult-aimed animated comedy by centering on women specifically—an impressive feat in an industry plagued by antiquated, misogynistic views. In 2016, Polygon reported that Adult Swim’s executive VP Mike Lazzo once said, “When you put women in the writers room, you get conflict, not comedy,” before proceeding to dig the hole deeper by posting to Reddit: “Women don't tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that's probably why we (or others) have so few female projects.” He later retracted the statement (though it remains on Reddit), but it was just a tiny glimpse of the harassment that female writers of animated shows—remember Rick and Morty?—along with the female critics of such shows face on the internet. Tuca & Bertie is not on Adult Swim, but the severe underrepresentation of women at the animation giant offers some explanation as to why more female-led animated comedies don’t already exist.
Watching Tuca & Bertie makes it obvious just how much untapped creative energy we’ve lost as a result of these unwelcome spaces. Haddish and Wong’s dynamic is electric. The two are universal, yet different enough to telegraph a multidimensional view of 30-year-old metropolitan womanhood in all of its wonderful microaggressions and banalities. And that’s the magic sauce: When Bertie decides to pursue a promotion, she is confronted by the same kind of glass ceiling we’ve all hit up against. She’s sexualized by a bird-man colleague, who proceeds to steal her ideas. When Bertie reports his behavior, the HR rep tells her to take his advances as a compliment; meanwhile, that colleague is able to bond with her male boss over stereotypically male pastimes.
Tuca struggles through her own path of relative employment, navigating a number of odd jobs through the gig economy. She glides from gig to gig on charisma alone, but is typically fired for her “creativity,” and her external confidence masks her insecurities. In one of the show’s best moments—though I hesitate to call any moment “the best,” because the show is so consistently good—she applies a beak-minimizing makeup product that shrinks her most distinctive feature. It’s both a painful reminder of the scrutiny that women’s bodies are constantly under, and also a deeply funny moment thanks to the fact that Tuca is a toucan. (Her beak is enormous.)
These jokes are exactly what keep the show from being too painful to watch, in a Pen15 sort of way. The humor style shares a lot of DNA with Adult Swim’s shows, where every moment that dips too far into despair is tempered by something hilariously gonzo. In Tuca & Bertie, these, too, are specifically female concerns. When Bertie is sexually harassed, her left boob pops off her body, morphs into its own character and declares it’s taking the rest of the day off. It “returns to work”—by which I mean “it returns to being her left boob”—very hungover and deeply droopy. When Tuca combines multiple OTC creams to treat a vaginal itch, they cause the “sex bugs” living her in her crotch to grow to human-sized—and I mean this literally. The large critters proceed to run around the grocery store humping things (and each other).
The anxiety-inducing scenarios that commonly afflict Millennial women—workplace and street harassment, job stagnation, sexual frustration—have always been ripe with potential for dark comedy. Tuca & Bertie finally takes advantage of these themes, satirizing the stressors that make up systematic disenfranchisement and honoring the friendships that make it all tolerable. This camaraderie is the heart of the show, and what gives an otherwise bonkers world a touching sense of reality. Tuca and Bertie may never vanquish the systems that alienate them in the first place, but they do offer each other support, validation, and relief. They’re each other’s life jackets. And they really are just like us—when shit goes sideways, your best friend makes a world of difference.
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