Netflix’s short-lived Tuca & Bertie is the brainchild of animator Lisa Hanawalt, who also works on the hit animated show Bojack Horseman. The one-season sitcom follows the friendship of the titular 30-year-old BFF bird women as they navigate the perils of adulthood, including jobs, family, relationships, and each other. There’s a lot to love about this show. Besides being hilarious, it also plays with animation in a way that most modern cartoons do not, using the 2-D environment to create jokes that can only exist in a drawn space.
The show is also empowering. From buildings with boobs to a blasé attitude toward STI’s (normally stigmatizing and certainly not joked about in media), Tuca & Bertie takes the burdens that many women/non-binary folx/femmes carry with them silently for their entire lives and normalizes them by inserting humor. Where other shows use this same pain as misery porn, sucking people in with high-stakes exploitation and reinforcing old ideas about women being defined and ruined by their bodies/sexuality, Tuca & Bertie focuses instead on growth. Even exposing breasts, an often taboo act, becomes an everyday occurrence in the cartoon, making breasts less taboo and more ordinary.
But it’s not all shenanigans and tits. The animated comedy doesn’t shy away from pushing very real, traumatic events into the spotlight. Dealing candidly with grief and sexual assault in a compassionate way that emphasizes growth rather than victim-hood.
Of the two protagonists, Tuca is the more spontaneous. Relying on moxie and luck, the impetuous toucan jokes and dances her way through life. But Tuca, while often leaning on her humor to cope with difficult situations, is masking some serious pain. It’s revealed during the course of the season that she is six months sober. While the show doesn’t delve into the details of her alcoholism, it does provide insight into how her recovery is affecting her confidence. Tuca goes on her first date since sobriety, and ends up sabotaging it, later admitting she doesn’t know how to act when she’s not drunk. In yet another episode, it’s Tuca’s rich auntie’s birthday. Aunt Tallulah, who has been financially supporting Tuca for years, is a lonely alcoholic living in a massive New England mansion. While Tallulah becomes increasingly drunk and abusive, Tuca can’t bring herself to admit to her that she isn’t drinking. This is also the episode where we learn more about Tuca’s mother, who died when Tuca was still young. She is still clearly grieving her mother’s untimely death. After Tuca storms out, refusing to take any more of her aunt’s money, the free-spirited toucan begins to spiral.
Family relationships are usually complicated, and often painful when coupled with substance abuse and death. The fact that a comedic cartoon paints such a frank picture of family trauma, and then makes space for the characters to learn and grow is a pleasant surprise. Especially when you consider Tuca & Bertie’s cousin, Bojack Horseman, who revels in its lack of growth.
The most impressive aspect of Tuca & Bertie, however, is how it deals with sexual trauma. Bertie’s relationship with her once-idol-now-enemy, the star baker Pastry Pete, is not a simple abuse of power. While Pastry Pete abuses his authority, forcing Bertie into uncomfortable and inappropriate, sexually-charged situations while she apprentices at his pastry shop, Bertie does what so many women do in order to advance in their fields, or simply cope with yet another abuse of power: she normalizes it. In doing so, she fails to warn another apprentice, Dakota, of Pastry Pete’s behavior. Dakota, however, doesn’t stand for it. The young canary quits on the spot, not only calling out her boss’ behavior, but also Bertie’s. For Dakota, Bertie’s inaction was inexcusable. And no matter how much we may relate to Bertie, Dakota is 100% right. Protagonist doesn’t mean hero, and it certainly doesn’t mean without flaws.
One of the most powerful moments in the show, however, is The Jelly Lakes. Tuca and Bertie take a trip to Bertie’s family’s summer cabin where they meet her cool motorcycle-driving former swim instructor, Coach Maple and her wife, Pat. Before becoming an aspiring amateur baker with a day job, Bertie was apparently an amazing swimmer. She hasn’t done it since her last summer at the lakes, however, when she intended to swim all the way to Peanut Island. Bertie eventually reveals to Tuca that the day of the swim, a lifeguard sexually assaulted her. She was twelve. There is then a beautiful sequence where Bertie rescues and reconciles with her child-self. Yet again, rather than focusing on painful memories, Tuca & Bertie points its characters forward. The entire episode is framed alongside Coach Maple’s wife’s egg vignettes. Pat emphasizes the importance of a single moment, fragile yet significant, in her art. We are defined by these captured moments. But as the episode continues, it becomes clear that we can reclaim these memories and make them our own.
As of right now, there will be no more episodes of Tuca & Bertie, and it’s a shame. While shows like Bojack Horseman thrive (and understandably so; it is a spectacular show), which place so much emphasis on toxic masculinity, lack of empathy, and lack of understanding and growth, instead choosing to allow privileged characters to continue to fester and wallow in their insecurities, it’s disappointing to see a show going in an opposite, more positive direction get cancelled in its first season. Nevertheless, Tuca & Bertie is a breath of fresh air. Clever, funny, and bittersweet, it is a delightful moment, short and sweet, briefly captured like one of Pat’s vignettes.