It probably does Netflix’s new cartoon buddy-comedy Tuca & Bertie no initial favors to point out that it was created by BoJack Horseman producer Lisa Hanawalt. Both shows are set in universes populated by anthropomorphized animals(*) — our heroines here are a loud and reckless toucan (Tiffany Haddish) and an anxious and sensible song thrush (Ali Wong) — but Tuca & Bertie aspires to neither the anarchic laughs nor the melancholy depths of BoJack.
(*) Two crucial differences: 1) There are also plenty of plant-human hybrids in this new show as well, including a neighbor who frequently walks around her apartment topless; and 2) While ordinary human-humans exist in Tuca and Bertie’s world, too, they appear very infrequently.
The early episodes are low-fi bordering on plotless. Tuca has recently moved to her own apartment to accommodate Bertie getting serious with dependable boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun, in a delightfully sincere and easygoing vocal performance), and Bertie contemplates apprenticing with a handsome local baker who has, as she puts it, “the body of a tenure-track professor but the arms of an adjunct.” Mainly, though, the draw at the start is the trippier and more fluid animation style Hanawalt and her collaborators deploy. Even when you accept the animal hybrid concept, and just the basic physics of how so many of the characters are able to function, it’s a weird-looking show. There’s something engrossing in seeing the designs, and then in watching the many ways Hanawalt and company find to deviate from that unnerving baseline. (Flashbacks, dream sequences and stories that characters tell each other all look radically different from one another as well as from regular scenes set in the present. And even those can be odd, like Tuca’s journey from her new apartment to Bertie’s being rendered as an 8-bit videogame.)
But it’s easy to forget that before BoJack turned out to be one of this decade’s very best shows, it was also a slightly directionless oddity in its own right. Early BoJack seemed more like an Adult Swim or Seth MacFarlane reject, albeit with some clever gags, and it took about a half-season for it to reveal itself as a masterful portrait of clinical depression that also featured hilarious showbiz satire.
Tuca & Bertie doesn’t achieve those heights by the end of its first season, but it’s also not necessarily trying to. It’s a warmer, gentler show not only about female friendship, but about all the compromising and code-switching required to function as a woman at this moment in time. Tuca is newly sober, and there’s a messy history of Bertie having to save her from past mistakes. And Bertie warily joins a support group called Women Taking Up Space so she can find the confidence to stand up for herself at work and with pushy men in general. The season grows more slyly funny as it moves along, while also digging relatively deep into the inner lives of its title characters and Speckle. The wonderful penultimate episode, where Bertie confronts a difficult truth from her past while her childhood swim coach (Jane Lynch as a turaco with swole arms) wrestles a giant squid, comes closest to hitting the BoJack tonal-extreme twofer. But even that one is deliberately smaller in dramatic and comic scale than what we might expect going in.
When BoJack premiered, I dropped it after the first few episodes and only came back when an overwhelming crowd of people told me it had become something much more ambitious and emotionally rich. The start of Tuca & Bertie often left me confused, even as I enjoyed looking at it. But I stuck with it and soon found myself simply happy to be spending time in the company of these dysfunctional but endearing pals, and eager to see more when it comes.
So in hindsight, maybe it does do Tuca & Bertie some favors to point out the BoJack connection. It takes patience, but the sweet and silly reward is worth it.
Tuca & Bertie premieres May 3rd on Netflix. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.