bird watching

Tuca & Bertie Are Just As Anxious As You Are

Tuca & Bertie’s speciality is its depiction and normalization of stress, an element that feels even more valuable now than it did back when the show first premiered. Photo: Adult Swim

Roberta “Bertie” Songthrush has always been an extremely anxious bird.

During the first season of Tuca & Bertie, which debuted on Netflix in 2019, she got unnerved by work presentations and major life decisions that involved her boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yuen). She even had a complete meltdown in a grocery store, presented via the musical number “I’m Losing My Shit,” several months before a global pandemic would cause many, many humans to have panic attacks in grocery stores. As voiced by Ali Wong, Bertie has been both a reflection of our broader era of anxiety and a sneak preview of how much more anxious things would get.

In the second season of Tuca & Bertie, now airing Sunday nights on Adult Swim following Netflix’s premature cancellation of the series two months after its premiere, Bertie is still struggling with a sense of unease. In the first episode, she’s wracked with such fear about what should be a fun event — an anniversary dinner with Speckle — that she spends an inordinate amount of time trying to find the perfect therapist who can magically give her the life hack she needs to achieve calm. Bertie’s not the only one feeling scared and isolated, either. While still overconfident and excessively horny per usual, Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) is dealing with her own insecurities as a newly sober toucan trying to figure out how her non-inebriated self fits into society and her pre-existing relationships.

The sorts of themes addressed in the Adult Swim version of Tuca & Bertie — mental health, toxic masculinity in the workplace, the loyalty and limits of tight friendships — are pretty similar to those addressed in the Netflix incarnation. The same can be said of the show’s tone, which shifts between earnestness, dry comedy, dirty jokes, puns, and poignancy. Series creator Lisa Hanawalt and her team understand exactly how to balance the light and the heavy on the same scale, a skill Hanawalt cultivated while working on BoJack Horseman, a show with similar emotional proportions.

Based on the first four of the 10 new episodes, Tuca & Bertie 2.0 is slightly less aggressive about getting laughs. It still qualifies as a comedy and certainly contains plenty of scenes and storylines that lean fully into the genre. (Example: Tuca’s decision to launch a “non-televised, non-filmed” reality show called Sex Bus, in which she commandeers a bus filled with potential sexual partners and eliminates them until she finds a winner.) But it also seems to be embracing its introspective side more openly, the way it did in “The Jelly Lakes,” the first season’s penultimate episode, which addressed a long-buried, traumatic incident in Bertie’s childhood.

Tuca & Bertie’s speciality is its depiction and normalization of stress, an element that feels even more valuable now than it did in 2019. Bertie may feel that pressure more consistently and acutely than others, but in the second season, there are moments that push every character to the brink. In episode four, “Nighttime Friend,” Speckle gets a new fitness tracker and becomes so obsessive about racking up steps that he can’t stop — not even when he sleeps. In the same episode, Tuca suffers from more traditional insomnia and frequently finds herself wandering the streets of Birdtown at odd hours. From the very beginning of the first episode, Bertie is on edge, a feeling that intensifies when Pastry Pete, the chef and mentor who sexually harassed her, reasserts his presence this season.

The style of the animation is especially evocative at rendering these feelings as art. Bertie first realizes that the allegedly cancelled Pastry Pete is making a comeback when she’s preparing to do a presentation at her job at Conde Nest. A newly posted Pastry Pete online cooking video starts to auto-play on the conference room screen behind her so that the famed chef literally becomes a large presence that looms over a distraught-looking Bertie. When Tuca goes on her late-night walks, the buildings in Birdtown are drawn in outline only, without details or colors filled in, capturing the dim eeriness and strange comfort that comes from being one of the few beings with their eyes open when everyone else’s are shut.

Other shows have depicted strong female friendships, depression, and the need for self-examination both before Tuca & Bertie and since its Netflix cancellation; and therapy has historically been a regular feature on many comedies and dramas (although it’s true that a notable number of shows are homing in on that process at the moment). Tuca & Bertie distinguishes itself by depicting all these dynamics seriously, without sacrificing the lightness and escapism the show also provides. The fact that it’s an animated series populated by anthropomorphized birds and plants is weirdly helpful in this regard. Because its world is so fantastical in nature, some viewers may feel more comfortable recognizing a kinship between themselves and its inhabitants — it feels like less of a personal attack to see a bit of yourself in a pretty cartoon song thrush who’s dealing with severe angst than in a live-action, flesh-and-blood human doing the same thing. Animated birds: they’re just like us, but they’re also not like us, so we can relate without having the jarring experience of looking directly at ourselves through the mirror of our screens.

The core of Tuca & Bertie obviously lives right there in its title: the relationship between the two central characters is what defines the whole series. And from the very beginning of season two, the audience is asked to question whether that relationship is healthy. During Bertie’s first appointment with Dr. Joanne (Pamela Adlon), the therapist picks up on the co-dependency in their relationship and immediately advises Bertie to ditch Tuca. She also tells Bertie to engage in “a total relationship detox,” a comment that suggests that Dr. Joanne absolutely read this New York Times article.

There was no pandemic in Birdtown during the months that passed while we waited for Tuca & Bertie to return. But those bird BFFs are nevertheless dealing with many of the same issues affecting those of us emerging from COVID: uncertainty, sleeplessness, social apprehension, and questions about which people in our lives are doing us good rather than harm. This funny show starring an oversexed toucan and her dear, insecure aviary friend doesn’t provide all the answers or solutions. But in its idiosyncratic, sensitively rendered way, it makes you feel more okay about dealing with the doubts.

Tuca & Bertie Are Just As Anxious As You Are