Maybe Lisa Hanawalt’s contributions to Netflix’s acclaimed Bojack Horseman haven’t been ignored, but in the rush to fit TV under film’s auteurist umbrella, focal credit has leaned on creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg (as it would) over the show’s cartoonist/production designer/producer. This shouldn’t be a problem with Netflix’s new animated comedy Tuca & Bertie, which moves Hanawalt front and center in the creative process and proves to be amply worthy of praise.
Tuca & Bertie has many similarities to Bojack Horseman in its character design, increasingly raw seasonal structure and occasionally in its comic approach and targets, but it’s not Bojack Horseman. It’s a lighter, looser, more fanciful series, one in touch with a far wider emotional palette, one in which joy and emotional release are actually possible. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than Bojack, because it would be silly and unfair to compare a first-season show after only 10 episodes to one of the best shows of the decade and a show that made leaps of improvement as it progressed, but in short order, Tuca & Bertie has become another Netflix animated gem for adults, one that can be placed in a conversation with Bojack, Big Mouth and F Is for Family.
The premiere, created by Hanawalt and written by Hanawalt and Bob-Waksberg, introduces us to longtime friends and longtime roommates Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) and Bertie (Ali Wong). Tuca is an ultra-confident toucan, an under-employed hater of responsibility and lover of life and short-shorts. Bertie is a more tightly wound and neurotic songbird, too shy to ask for more responsibilities at work and harboring both dark secrets and a professional dream so repressed she doesn’t even realize it’s there until a chance meeting with a famous pastry chef (voiced by Reggie Watts). With Bertie welcoming additional commitment from her live-in boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun), Tuca is forced to move into an apartment on her own. Is Tuca ready for the responsibilities of independence? Is Bertie ready for the responsibilities of cohabitation? Will their friendship survive the separation?
Both Tuca and Bertie are complicated characters with psychological roadblocks holding them back, yet this isn’t a Bojack-ian story of repression and internalized angst, because what really holds the story together is a lovely portrait of female friendship, one that seems unconsciously or serendipitously designed and scheduled to fill the void left by the departed Broad City. Think of Tuca as a bit like Ilana, a source of unfiltered id and unfettered joie de vivre and raunch, and Bertie as Abbi, not exactly an embodiment of buttoned-down ego, but prone to self-consciousness and self-editing, except for when she lets loose or falls apart. The two birds share a language, routines, rhythms and an astonishing patience with each other and even in their occasional fights or blow-ups, you never forget the love they have for each other. The show is wonderfully attuned to a female perspective and the drama created by female desires and insecurities and doesn’t especially care what its male characters, with the possible exception of Speckle, are motivated by and it’s frankly a glorious thing.
In lieu of the gentrifying New York of Broad City or the corrosive Hollywood of Bojack, Tuca & Bertie is set in Bird Town, a colorful melange of urban spaces that’s a little bit Brooklyn, a little bit Miami and generally devoid of concrete geographic rules. Our primary characters may be of avian descent, but other citizens include humans, anthropomorphized animals, non-anthropomorphized animals and anthropomorphized plants. I suspect Hanawalt could give a tangible explanation for how this space is occupied, but part of the pure joy of Tuca & Bertie is in how Bird Town is a city fueled by whimsy and bold emotional strokes rather than anything more literal. A text message can be an adorable block with feet that runs from one character to another, a crying jag can fill a car with tears and the streets of the city can become a disorienting maze or roller-coaster or blurred anime backdrop depending on how the main characters are feeling. As flights of urban animation fancy go, it’s almost a brighter, warmer, female-forward version of something like Felix the Cat. Think Ralph Bak-She? Or, really, think about strolling through Lisa Hanawalt’s mind, without restriction.
The animation style is similarly without boundaries. The first season features interludes of puppetry, claymation, 8-bit video game graphics and more. Again, every stylistic change is character-motivated and nothing is ever repeated, at least not thus far.
And the humor follows suit. There are moments of straight-ahead parody, like Bertie’s obsession with a Downton Abbey-esque series called Nests of Netherfield, but it’s just as likely to give in to kaleidoscopic, often slightly gross absurdism like a full and wonderfully wacky episode dedicated to Tuca’s, um, “sex bugs.” Bojack Horseman has become a show so awash in background humor and pause-the-episode textual and visual gags that the most recent season used one of those gags to tell viewers to just pay attention to the story. There are times when Tuca & Bertie is a direct response to that, leaving the backgrounds for eye-popping splashes of color or borderline hallucinatory imagery and then, just as often, there are the pun-driven business names, supermarket aisle categorizations and book titles that demand pausing. I laughed out loud a lot at Tuca & Bertie, and watched with a big smile on my face the rest of the time.
The voice work is, across-the-board, exceptional. Haddish has a say-anything/do-anything persona that makes her practically an animated character in real life and Tuca absorbs and reflects that spontaneity in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect the exhaustively planned world of animation to be able to. Tuca’s character design and Haddish’s line-readings have a sloppy, improvisational messiness that’s set perfectly against Wong’s comic precision that paints within the lines and then bursts outside the edges when Bertie loses control. Yeun brings likable Everybird charm to Speckle, and the rest of the cast is one superb and variably recognizable guest appearance after another, with standouts ranging from Richard E. Grant as Bertie’s easily distracted boss at Conde Nest to Jenifer Lewis as Tuca’s doting aunt. It’s always worth sticking with an episode through the credits to identify any voices you might have missed and for the post-credit gags that cap each installment.
It’s a part of the Bojack mythology that critics were initially sent only five episodes and reviews were mixed because that show doesn’t entirely kick into gear until the backend of the first season. Tuca & Bertie settles into its identity much faster. After maybe an episode, I had moved past “OK, so this isn’t Bojack” into “OK, this is its own pleasurable and appealing thing,” and by the closing episodes, which add some dark and mature undertones, I was disappointed I wouldn’t have any more Tuca & Bertie to watch for a while. This is one to enjoy on its own merits.
Cast: Tiffany Haddish, Ali Wong, Steven Yeun
Creator: Lisa Hanawalt
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)