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TV Review: Tuca & Bertie Pecks at Millennial Malaise With Infectious Energy

on May 03, 2019, 4:05pm

The Pitch: In the sprawling, talking-animal-filled metropolis of Birdtown, two friends are poised to take the city by storm. Toucan Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) is an intense, newly-sober trust fund bird who fits the dictionary definition of “a lot sometimes”; songbird Bertie (Ali Wong) is her shyer, more reserved best friend who suffers away at a publishing company (Conde Nest) while waiting for her life to begin. Tuca’s recently moved out of their apartment so Bertie can move in her sensible, neat-freak boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun), but Tuca still finds plenty of opportunities to insinuate herself in their lives. While they’re trying their damnedest to forge exciting new futures on their own, each new challenge — workplace sexual harassment, spicing up their sex lives — draws them back into each other’s flight path.

Birdtown, Birdtown: While it’s technically not a spin-off of BoJack Horseman (although Raphael Bob-Waksberg executive produces the series and co-writes some episodes), Tuca & Bertie‘s pedigree and tone owes a lot to Netflix’s pioneering adult animation outing. Imagine if you took a plane from Hollywoo to that show’s version of New York City, and creator/former BoJack production designer Lisa Hanawalt‘s Birdtown would fit in quite nicely. Contrasted with the lonesome agoraphobia of Hollywood are too-snug apartments and snakes for subway trains; the entire city feels anthropomorphized in a way we haven’t quite seen before. (It’s almost as if the city is another … eh, let’s drop it.)

While BoJack Horseman leavens its animal absurdity with a heaping spoonful of middle-aged pathos, Tuca & Bertie is far more playful and exuberant. The animation is more fluid and free-form, its main characters occasionally jumping in to rap to themselves about their days over the show’s manically hip-hop-infused soundtrack (courtesy of BoJack‘s Jesse Novak). Hollywoo makes BoJack want to hide away from the world with a bottle of scotch; Birdtown’s non-stop brightness and activity forces you to pay attention to it.

Broad-Billed City: At this point, the “millennial BFFs making their way in the big city” story is hardly untouched ground, but Tuca & Bertie‘s arresting animation and whip-smart central performances put it on excellent footing next to Broad City and the best episodes of Girls. The odd-couple dynamic between the titular birds is a central concern of the show’s overarching story, echoing the frustrating blend of toxicity and connection that comes with one’s most memorable friendships. The two often bring out the best in each other; Tuca pulls Bertie out of her emotional nest, while Bertie grounds Tuca and keeps her on task. As the series begins, they’re trying out some distance for the first time in years, and it’s a lot harder than either expects.

While both Wong and Haddish are comedians known for their boisterous, edgy stand-up performances, it’s great to see Wong in particular play such a study in contrasts. As Bertie, she’s reigned in, trapped by her insecurities in crowded grocery stores and male-dominated office meetings alike; she’s the kind of list-making wallflower that the pressures of adulthood have a particular effect upon. If you’re the kind of person who makes meticulous itineraries for your fun days off, Bertie will be deeply, painfully relatable.

As for Tuca, it’s the typical slam-dunk Haddish performance you expect: she’s blessed with the kind of innate confidence that takes her surprisingly far. And yet, when she runs into her own hiccups, from going on a date with a monkey she actually likes to spending a tense weekend in the “Beakshires” with her rich auntie (a majestic Jenifer Lewis), those rare moments of vulnerability ring especially true. Tuca & Bertie may not wallow in despair in the same way that BoJack does, but it treats its characters’ life concerns with respect.

“Women Taking Up Space”: The visual playfulness of Tuca & Bertie‘s malleable animated world is more than just a vehicle for absurdist gags about apartment buildings jiggling their breasts while they dance. The show also uses it in spades to explore the innate strangeness of our own bodies. In one episode, one of Bertie’s breasts (voiced by Awkwafina) becomes so uncomfortable with a coworker’s comment about Bertie’s tight sweater that it literally pops off her chest and walks out. In another, Tuca contends with “sex bugs” contracted during her last bender before sobriety, the show depicting them as constantly-banging anthropomorphic insects in lingerie and bondage gear. The ashes of Speckle’s grandmother are accidentally baked into a living, talking cake, which then begs him to eat her. Every character has the potential to twist and contort themselves in inhuman ways, their flexibility matching the creaks and groans of the city around them.

Bodies are disgusting, or so Hanawalt seems to suggest, and she embraces this truism in a way that circles around to affirmation and empowerment. The women of Tuca & Bertie have the same hangups about beak size and youth that we all share. And the show loves its characters for that.

The Verdict: Tuca & Bertie still has the same sense of verbal play as its parent show (“Did you know that a jiggly buffalo lives in that jungle bungalow?”), but it’s operating on an entirely different wavelength. It’s a psychedelic look at the intricacies of female friendship that’s also sensitive to the ways in which modern relationships throw everyone for a loop. (Bless those who don’t relate to the tension of moving into a place already decorated with your significant other’s stuff.) With the help of its pop sound and the constantly undulating rhythms of its setting, here’s hoping these two birds of a feather will flock together for a few more seasons to come.

Trailer:

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