The first sight that greets viewers of Tuca & Bertie, the new Netflix show by illustrator and BoJack Horseman production designer Lisa Hanawalt, is bouncing blue boobs protruding from the side of a building. Boobs definitely seems like the right word for them; these leaping, nippled mounds seem both matter-of-fact and ebullient, their carefree springiness amplifying a dancing edifice’s bodily bliss. On Tuca & Bertie, breasts hang off structures, mushroom caps replace heads, smitten characters’ bones flee their bodies when their crush talks to them, and, well, I’ll save the sex stuff for you to discover yourself. Our protagonists, voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, have avian heads and human bodies, an Etsy-friendly aesthetic familiar to BoJack fans. But whereas BoJack’s chimeras underscore the absurdity of Hollywood excess, on Tuca & Bertie, with its more intimate focus on friendships, relationships, daily female struggles, and, later in the season, unresolved trauma, the mix-and-match look unexpectedly speaks to the universality of the characters’ experiences. Anyone can see themselves in the plight of a bird that feels like it’s forgotten how to fly.
Especially in its early episodes, Tuca & Bertie feels like the manic lovechild of BoJack and Broad City, another oft-surreal series about female besties caught up in an occasionally unhealthy codependence. At the series’ outset, Tuca (Haddish) has just moved out of the apartment the two of them shared for years to make room for Bertie’s (Wong) stability-craving boyfriend, Speckles (Steven Yeun). Gabby and brash, Tuca’s a toucan who lives off the generosity of a wealthy aunt (Jenifer Lewis). Sweater-swaddled Bertie’s a demure songbird, as well as a data processor at Condé Nest (among other things, Hanawalt is responsible for BoJack’s pun-riddled background gags, a penchant she indulges here as well). It takes a few installments to adjust to the show’s frenetic pace and frequent digressions; initially, I took a mini-break at the two-thirds point of each episode. But around the fifth half-hour, Tuca & Bertie and I met in the middle, as the series slowed down to tackle darker subjects like sobriety and sexual harassment.
Needless to say, this is a cartoon for grown-ups—not just because of the boobs, but because of the extraordinary sensitivity with which it deals with issues like office humiliations and existential anxieties and complicated relationships. (I knew we were watching adult-ass bird-women when Bertie’s croissants earned her a job offer with a celebrity chef, but she didn’t quit her job immediately to go pursue her dream, because not everybody gets to do that.) By deciding to live apart, 30-year-old Tuca and Bertie have entered a new phase of their lives. Tuca starts to fear that, as she gets older, her fuck-it-all ways are starting to be less “quirky” and more “sad.” Bertie worries that settling down with Speckles means settling for him and that her control-freak personality might drive away both her boyfriend and her best friend. This is wildly familiar territory, of course, but even the most stock situations are told in Hanawalt’s visual larks and heartfelt compassion for her characters. When a coarse co-worker gives Bertie a nasty comment, her fed-up left boob (voiced by Awkwafina, natch) jumps from her sweater to stalk off and go get a drink.
And we’re back to the breasts. It’s safe to say Tuca & Bertie has a boob fixation—specifically, with reclaiming them for women. It’s hard not to think of Jessica Rabbit and all the countless other ways the female body has been distorted in animation for the straight male gaze as Hanawalt normalizes the presence of boobs and nipples—like when a pre-date trying-on-outfits montage displays, with not a hint of titillation, a female character’s bare chest—while celebrating their capacity for delight. Lived-in-ness is one of the hardest qualities to convey in cartoon form, which is why the bikini tan lines on Tuca and Bertie’s plant-lady neighbor (plant head, human body, medical-school education) is such a splendid detail. Hanawalt even takes back the three-boob gag from the likes of Total Recall and Mallrats. Along with the penultimate episode, which is as harrowing and heartbreaking as anything on BoJack—a stratospherically high bar—its free-the-nipple ethos feels uncommonly healing. It’s a smart use of Netflix’s streaming liberties and an ambitious mainstreaming of feminist art.
Haddish embodies an archetype we’ve seen her as several times now (as well as a character whose tragic history is not dissimilar to the actress’s early years), but Tuca & Bertie allows her to fill in those outlines in fascinating new ways. Wong’s comedic persona is of a wild child too (if a reformed one), which makes the dramatic shadings of her performance a revelation. As on BoJack, the supporting voice cast is full of marvelous surprises, which I won’t spoil further, but it’s arguably the hand-drawn-style animation, with bright, saturated colors, that’s the real star. The characters are so expressive they can convey conflicted horniness, and the city of Bird Town playfully defies all known laws of physics and common sense. In Hanawalt’s hands, you’ll feel wonderfully unbalanced, then tenderly comforted.