A Wake for Tuca & Bertie, Which Should Not Have Been Canceled

Tuca, Bertie, we hardly knew ye. Photo: Netflix

Yesterday Netflix announced it is canceling Tuca & Bertie after just one season. I am sure Netflix has its reasons. Presumably not enough subscribers watched that first season. Also, there are too many TV shows these days anyway. Some of them have to get canceled, right?

Yes, some of them do. Some of them should be. Just not Tuca & Bertie, not after only one season.

Tuca & Bertie, an animated series about a recovering addict toucan and a clinically anxious songbird, is an idiosyncratic show. As created by Lisa Hanawalt, a cartoonist as well as the production designer and a producer of BoJack Horseman, it’s a comedy set in an entirely anthropomorphized-animal world that focuses on the personal and societal issues that set booby traps in Tuca’s and Bertie’s daily lives. Its rhythms become more endearing and engaging with each episode, and are admittedly much easier to adjust to if you’re familiar with Hanawalt’s other work.

The animation style is similar to BoJack, as is the preponderance of humanized animals. The humor is dense and often deployed at a fast pace, as is also the case on BoJack. But the jokes on Tuca & Bertie are more character-driven and less obviously satirical. They’re also definitely more female. The fact that Tuca & Bertie has a woman’s point of view is what distinguishes it most sharply from BoJack Horseman, and, for that matter, a majority of the mainstream adult animation that’s been disseminated to the masses over the past three decades.

In one form or another, what Tuca and Bertie are dealing with throughout season one is the sense that they’re falling short of what society expects of them. Bertie, voiced by Ali Wong, is a nervous wreck who loves her boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun) but is afraid of commitment; wants to succeed in her data analysis job at Conde Nest but is afraid to ask for a raise; wants to pursue running a bakery as a potential career but is afraid to jump in with both bird feet. No matter what she pursues, she’s plagued by the sense that she isn’t doing it right.

Tuca, voiced by Tiffany Haddish, has the opposite problem. She’s doing everything kinda wrong and mostly doesn’t care. She can’t hold down a single, solid job, she’s irresponsible, her apartment is a wreck, and she’s freakishly dependent on Bertie. Deep down, she doesn’t believe she’s doing life right either, but she’s sublimated her guilt and shame, then inverted both into a sense of confidence. Tuca is a bird-woman who doesn’t seem to have her shit together but acts like she does, and Bertie is a bird-woman who actually does mostly have her shit together but acts like she doesn’t. Put the two of them together and you’ve got the ideal “I don’t know how she does it” woman. Which is another way of saying what Tuca & Bertie tells us repeatedly: Every woman, every day, is falling apart, sometimes in ways you can see and sometimes in ways you can’t.

The series takes big swings at making this point. In a fantasy sequence in the second episode, Bertie imagines herself speaking up in a meeting after Dirk, her prototypical bad male co-worker, miraculously becomes self-aware and exits the conference room. “I’m Bertie’s dumb, annoying co-worker, Dirk,” says Dirk, who is, obviously, a rooster. (Read: He’s a cock.) “I wear too much cologne, I pronounce it ‘ex-specially,’ and I usually talk over you. But I just realized I’m a stupid asshole. Now I’m gonna go fuck myself!” Then he leaves. (Ladies and non-annoying gentlemen: We’ve all worked with at least one Dirk and we’ve all desperately wished he would one day do this.)

In episode four, there’s a musical number that’s partly about Tuca’s case of crabs — they’re called sex bugs in Tuca & Bertie world — but more about a panic attack Bertie is having in the middle of a high-end grocery store. (Song title: “I’m Losing My Shit.”) In episode six, after feeling left out when Bertie and Speckle discuss buying a house, Tuca gets a pet jaguar that nearly kills her. The jaguar is eventually adopted by the Zen neighbor who lives in the apartment across the hall. That neighbor happens to be a houseplant.

Because this is an animated show, it can do all of these heightened and ridiculous things — but it also can show us what it looks like when Tuca or Bertie is teetering on a high emotional ledge in ways that resonate, perhaps, more directly than they might in a live-action series. Some people, wrongly, react to the sight of an actual woman in the middle of a meltdown or rage-filled rant as irritating or “too much.” (For more on this, please turn to the chapter in your TV Patriarchy textbook called “The Story of Breaking Bad’s Skyler White.”) Because Tuca & Bertie is already “too much,” that tendency is undercut. It’s weird that it may be easier for some people to see the humanity in an animated bird-woman than in a real, flesh-and-blood woman, but I also think it’s true.

Tuca & Bertie also pivots to dealing with serious issues, including sexual assault, alcoholism, and parental abuse, in a way that feels natural instead of out of left field. And it explores how complicated female friendships are, and how they can be a bit dysfunctional and very worthwhile all at once.

On top of all of that, Tuca & Bertie is — was? — a show with a voice cast filled with people of color, and an animated series that wasn’t just about women, but was created by one. Think of the major American animated hit shows of the past couple of decades: The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, Futurama, Rick and Morty, Adventure Time, King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers, BoJack Horseman, Big Mouth. While some of these shows have great female characters, the majority of them feature male protagonists and every single one of them was created by men. There is only a handful of semi-recent, popular animated shows that were created or co-created by women for American television. Daria (co-created by Susie Lewis) is one. Steven Universe (created by Rebecca Sugar) and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (created by Lauren Faust) are two more. But while all three have or had adult fans, they were primarily aimed at youth audiences.

Hanawalt created Tuca & Bertie for grown-ups, and did it so singularly that the show felt connected directly to her brain, heart, and artistry. Considering how rare it is for women to get showrunner opportunities, particularly in the animated realm, it stings even more to see Tuca & Bertie get the cut before it really got a chance to find an audience.

I’ve written a lot about how BoJack Horseman’s fifth season makes an active effort to pivot away from BoJack and cede center stage to the women on the show, particularly Diane Nguyen. (See here, and also here.) Tuca & Bertie is not a spinoff of BoJack. But because it shares some similar DNA, the fact that Netflix started streaming it eight months after the last BoJack landed, its arrival felt like an extension of that widening of perspectives that BoJack’s fifth season championed. It made sense that we got Tuca & Bertie in 2019, after 2018’s BoJack. The fact that Tuca & Bertie got canceled less than three months after it showed up? That just makes no sense at all.

Tuca & Bertie Should Not Have Been Canceled