tv review

Tuca & Bertie Feels Like a Classic Sitcom Set Inside a Surreal Dreamscape

Photo: Netflix

Tuca & Bertie is an adult animated series from Netflix, set in a world of anthropomorphized animals who walk upright and have jobs. It’s created by Lisa Hanawalt, a production designer and animator on BoJack Horseman, and the character drawings are so similar to that series that if you saw a frame out of context, you might assume it was a spinoff of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s now-long-running series.

But Tuca & Bertie, which stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong as the voices of a toucan and a songbird who are best friends, is its own thing. It’s lighter, wackier, and more aggressively surreal, and mostly lacks the morose, introspective elements that invite comparisons of BoJack to Mad Men and other live-action dramas built around self-destructive screwups. The plotting evokes a classic sitcom in the I Love Lucy tradition, built around exuberant goofballs getting into trouble and then miraculously extricating themselves from it. At times, the dynamic between Tuca and Bertie channels Laverne & Shirley, with the tall, brassy toucan and the smaller, meeker songbird helping each other out of jams, Tuca typically serving as the bulldozing life force of the two.

But it’s the design of the show that makes it more than a diversion. I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could project this show on the wall of a nightclub with music blasting and still be mesmerized by it. In fact, it might have more impact that way, due to Hanawalt and the production team’s clear affinity for surreal graphic art — including very early comic strips like Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland and Krazy Kat; pre–World War II cartoon shorts directed by such filmmakers as Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, and Frank Tashlin; Yellow Submarine; and more recent heirs like SpongeBob SquarePants and Adventure Time — works that were assembled mainly according to dream logic, not any sort of rational or “realistic” approach to narrative.

It’s strange to think of BoJack Horseman as a realistic show, but compared to this, it is. Tuca & Bertie is set in a dreamscape where things turn into other things without explanation, metaphors and puns are made real, and any given frame might boast little marginal details that are delightful on their own, and lose their magic when you try to explain and justify them. When the characters have heated discussions or arguments, words and sometimes images appear in the air near them. An action sequence in the first episode showing the duo racing through their city includes throwaway images of a giant train that’s actually a caterpillar; you’re not supposed to ask how animals get in and out of the caterpillar, you’re just supposed to laugh at the way the insect hugs the shape of the railroad platform. The climax of that same episode is an exercise in borderline-nightmare absurdity that’s perfect because it’s so flagrantly uninterested in appealing to the kinds of viewers who need the mythology of a fictional world to “logically” justify every choice the artists make within it. Some of the characters are their own double entendres: A male co-worker of Bertie’s who is angling for a promotion that she wants, takes credit for her work, and sexually harasses her is literally a cock. Others are borderline David Lynchian in their strangeness, including a neighbor of Bertie’s, a tall, imperious plant woman who has dozens of turtles in her apartment, doesn’t speak, and has a burst of leaves for a head. When the duo visits her, the scene ends with her unexpectedly taking her top off to reveal two green breasts, then staring facelessly at the heroines as they leave, a burning cigarette poised in one of her slender green hands.

Both lead voice performances are spot-on, though if you’ve seen Wong’s earthy, hilarious stand-up specials, it’s easy to imagine the two switching roles. The supporting cast carries on the BoJack tradition of superstar character actors practically disappearing into their animated selves (including Steven Yeun as Bertie’s boyfriend Speckles and Richard E. Grant as her boss at Condé Nast). The plotting takes evident pleasure in tying things up with an all’s-well-that-ends-well bow, even when it’s built around real-world anxieties like workplace harassment and the stress of the gig economy (which briefly obsesses Tuca). It’s the adult animated series as a big box of animal crackers.

Tuca & Bertie Is a Classic Sitcom Within a Surreal Dream