Lisa Hanawalt’s new Netflix series will be one of 2019’s best.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Cross Broad City with early Adventure Time or Regular Show and you’ve got a rough approximation of Tuca & Bertie, artist Lisa Hanawalt’s new animated series for Netflix. Whilst the advertising, anthropomorphic animal-people characters, and some shared personnel might lead viewers to come in with set expectations, the series has nothing to do with BoJack Horseman and in much of its tone and content couldn’t be further from that other show. Even in terms of pure aesthetics, Tuca & Bertie is a much more vibrant and stylish series than BoJack which aims to create a consistent reality and only sparingly breaks out visual tangents – Tuca & Bertie frequently resembles a motion version of one of Hanawalt’s comics with gags and illustrative asides akin to one-panel comic strips.
It is a world where surreality is the order of the day, where anything and everything can happen at basically any time. Broadway-style group musical numbers, profanity manifesting itself as platforms that can be driven over, tits up-and-outing from their host’s body leaving a giant hole where they used to reside until they come back wasted on alcohol, texts and emails walking themselves over to their recipients, ghost cakes, literal sex bugs, one episode’s plot is resolved by Tuca thinking a banana into existence. Whilst it can be a lot to come to grips with at first – this is also true of Tuca & Bertie as a show which can be a lot at times, proudly so – the more surrealist flourishes do have an internal consistency and are endemic of the show’s philosophy as a sweet-natured and gag-centric feminist comedy. The wandering tit occurs after Bertie suffers one too many gross sexual come-ons from a boorish fellow employee at work; the musical number, an expression of Bertie’s public crippling anxiety attack; the sex bugs, self-explanatory; back-talking mirrors which snipe at a person’s every flaw and insecurity, a hilarious manifestation at the self-esteem damage even the most apparently-confident woman can feel when looking back at themselves.
Such a light and outwardly comedic touch enables Tuca & Bertie the ability to explore its eventual heavier subjects in ways which are arguably just as deep as something like BoJack but are also definitely more female-focussed and female-resonant than that show ever could be. As the prior Broad City comparison may have clued you in, the show centres around the friendship of early 30s besties and former flatmates Tuca (Tiffany Haddish), an impulsive and confident toucan freewheeling through life off the back of cheques written by her rich auntie, and Bertie (Ali Wong), a responsible yet unfulfilled and extremely anxious songbird with dreams of becoming a baker, navigating the trials of life as modern women. And whilst the execution of said premise may not be exactly like that of Ilana Glazer and Abbie Jacobson’s modern classic – even with the fact that Tuca & Bertie takes advantage of the medium of animation for off-the-wall visualisations, it’s safe to say Broad City never had Ilana adopt a wild jaguar and then open a joint-checking account with it (after said jaguar has mauled most of the staff inside the bank) in a misguided effort to somehow prove she’s not needy – it has that same playfulness and quietly revolutionary matter-of-fact approach to everything.
Tuca & Bertie does become a touch darker and sadder as the season progresses, as the layers and pasts of our two leads are gradually peeled back, but it never becomes enthralled by the darkness, instead attempting to find either the funniest or most hopeful manners in which to deal with the subject. Workplace sexism, addiction and sobering up, verbally-abusive family members, existential crises, when co-dependency goes too far, even the extremely thorny subjects of consent and sexual assault which are legitimately uncomfortable yet deftly handled. Whilst not blindly so, Hanawalt and her team of writers don’t shy away from pointing out their leads’ respective flaws and forcing them to own up to their shit, this is a very celebratory show, one with a reverence for feminine media and apparel – a trip to a forgotten shopping mall and its Girl Thingz store in episode nine is a prime example of this – a predilection for shitting into the open mouths of intolerable fuccbois, and communicating the joyous all-conquering power of a strong female support system.
Needless to say with praise like that, Haddish and Wong absolutely kill it as Tuca and Bertie, since if they didn’t the show would likely have fallen to pieces, but they are still perfect from pretty much the word go. Their chemistry undeniable, their camaraderie lived-in, their various similarities and differences in delivery and feeling bouncing off each other seamlessly. Whether they’re firing off zingers or airing out long-standing grievances, there is already nobody else I could possibly picture as these two, the impression they leave is that instantaneous. Their dynamic is also rounded out in surprising ways by Steven Yeun’s Speckle, Bertie’s hysterically milquetoast robin boyfriend – a man so plain that his favourite porn involves two committed lovers having agreeable pedestrian missionary sex, which he still feels guilty about watching because the woman in the porn has a different feather colour to Bertie – who very quickly evolves from the expected joy-killing voice of reason counteracting Tuca’s influence to something altogether funnier and more compelling which is vital for the back half of the season.
A season that I thoroughly adored. I haven’t even paid proper due to Big Star Enterprises’ luminous and bouncy animation (they’re clearly relishing the opportunity to cut loose), Jesse Novak’s vibey score and insidiously catchy theme song – I need an official release of both yesterday please, Netflix – the excellent supporting cast, the many many puns, the masterful deployment of swearing, the fact that there is a Magical Girl Anime transformation sequence for pastry making… Tuca & Bertie finds its feet absurdly quickly and puts forward one of the best debut seasons in Netflix’s history. I finished up and immediately wanted at least five more seasons, and I know that there will be many others out there feeling exactly the same way. Especially women since Hanawalt has clearly made her show with the enjoyment of women like her in mind and any men who also happen to like it just being an added bonus. Fearless, fast and fucking funny as all hell, Tuca & Bertie is a must-watch.
Callum Petch is a cool party girl in a cool party world.