On Tuca & Bertie, the new Netflix series from the BoJack Horseman animator and production designer Lisa Hanawalt, the birds don’t need bees. The show follows its titular friends—cartoon bird-women voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, respectively—as the two navigate the familiar pitfalls of young adulthood: job troubles, assorted existential crises, and escalating libidos.
The series, which is streaming now, is perhaps the most surreal addition to a slowly expanding range of television shows that explore female desire with a mix of humor, vulgarity, filth, and thoughtfulness. The series has earned natural comparisons to the Ilana Glazer– and Abbi Jacobson–led sitcom Broad City, but part of Tuca & Bertie’s charm is how the brightness of Hanawalt’s animated world balances the mystifying and mundane circumstances her characters encounter.
When Tuca and Bertie wrestle with their explorations of sexuality, they do so against an eccentric background. The two are, after all, avian creatures. And the irreverent show takes a playful approach to anatomy more broadly: There are bouncing breasts attached to buildings, “boob cannolis” behind pastry-shop glass displays, and braless plant-humans. Tuca & Bertie is as whimsical as it is amorous, a welcome reprieve from the many shows that either cast women purely as sex objects or relegate their relationships to melodrama.
Though Tuca and Bertie’s world is plenty outrageous, the series is grounded by its compassion for the women as a duo and as individuals. The protagonists are a touch co-dependent, and their concerns often overlap, but their characters are distinct. (Even the show’s official Twitter account features missives in their separate voices.) Wong’s Bertie is more obviously anxious, about sex and everything else, but she’s also loyal, kind, and deeply intelligent. Haddish’s Tuca is brash and needy, but she’s also resourceful and bighearted.
Notably, the series doesn’t treat its characters’ sexuality as a joke. Bertie, for instance, is in a long-term relationship with a perfectly lovely fellow—a robin named Speckle (Steven Yeun), who moves in with her at the outset of the season. As their relationship deepens, Bertie, an amateur culinarian, finds herself drawn to a powerful pastry chef. In one memorable sequence at the end of Episode 5, “Plumage,” she gets so flustered by an interaction with the hot baking teacher that she runs into the patisserie bathroom to masturbate. It’s one of several such scenes on the show that telegraph women’s lust with both humor and gravity. In another scene, early in the next episode, Bertie is so overcome by her attraction that, while preparing croissants, she vividly imagines herself having sex with her baking instructor. “Bad brain, bad brain, bad brain! Why do I always do this!” one part of her brain yells, to which another responds, “Because you’re horny!”
The relationship between Bertie and the baker takes a heavy turn later in the season. But even at this earlier point, Tuca & Bertie communicates the extent to which Bertie’s interest in the baker is at least partly driven by her anxieties about committing to Speckle. Still, she does make genuine efforts to be a good partner: It’s amusing to see Bertie and Speckle earnestly attempt to jazz up their sex life in one episode by showing one another pornography and, in Bertie’s case, checking out guides such as Hot Sex for Agreeable People and Oral History of Oral Orioles and Areolas.
Tuca, the more free-spirited of the two, seems comfortable with overt sexuality at first blush, but the show gradually complicates her temperament. When Bertie expresses her frustrations and guilt about the illicit fantasies she’s having, it’s Tuca who reminds her that idle daydreams don’t change Bertie’s love for Speckle. “As long as you don’t act on them, weird crushes are cool. Your brain is a free zone,” Tuca tells Bertie, adding, “I got, like, a billion weird crushes going on at a time. In my head, I’m married to three random strangers, I’m having an affair with six others, and I’m terrified that the whole thing is gonna come crashing down on me.”
The absurdity of Tuca’s fantasy, and the fact that she tells Bertie about it while the two are literally hiding from a jaguar that Tuca attempted to domesticate, validates Bertie’s uneasiness about her attraction to her instructor and helps assuage her guilt. Tuca & Bertie weaves enough levity into depictions of its characters’ fears and shortcomings, sexual and otherwise, to offset how daunting just about everything in adult life can feel.
By taking this balanced tonal approach to their interior struggles, the show also mirrors the way Tuca and Bertie themselves support each other through difficult moments: with earnest affirmations and snark alike. Thankfully, the series doesn’t trot out female characters with simple, #empowered relationships to their bodies or to love. Tuca and Bertie fumble through sex and relationships within the context of a world—even an animated one—where women often face unwelcome attention from men in the workplace and beyond. That the series addresses these concerns without losing its fizzy energy saves it from ever feeling too preachy.
Tuca & Bertie delights for a host of other reasons too. Fans of BoJack Horseman will be thrilled to discover that Hanawalt carries her well-documented enthusiasm for clever sight gags and cheeky wordplay into the Tuca & Bertie universe (and the BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg serves as executive producer on the new show). Among Tuca’s many side hustles, for example, is the work she does as a “ChoreGoose”; on a quick walk upstairs to visit Bertie, she listens to a podcast and hears an ad for a website-design service called “OvalSpace.” Her neighbor, Dapper Dog, has black, white, and yellow theater programs on his wall, each of them reading DUCKBILL. Hanawalt’s world is as wacky and effervescent as her leads.
It’s a consistent joy to watch the series bring that same richness to its characters’ internal realities. Tuca and Bertie are still trying to figure things out, but the series handles their growing pains—around sex and other issues—with tenderness and understanding. For shows featuring young women, that remains an all-too-rare consideration. Tuca & Bertie is a short watch, just 10 25-minute episodes, but its warmth lingers long after the pair fly off-screen.
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