There are precious few TV shows that take thirtysomething women and their thirtysomething problems seriously. Onscreen, women are more often slotted into the roles of sexy teen, sexy and/or hapless twentysomething, and that ambiguous post-40 “of a certain age” designation that somehow encompasses half a lifetime. The thirties timespan, an especially crucial time for women figuring out what they want and can reasonably achieve, rarely gets the attention it rightly deserves — let alone from the wild and extremely male-dominated world of adult animation.
This, among about a thousand other things, makes “Tuca & Bertie” a rare treat of a show. Following reluctantly reforming party girl Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) and anxious amateur baker Bertie (Ali Wong), Netflix’s bizarre, insightful new comedy tells the story of a tried and true friendship between adult women. It picks up shortly after Tuca’s moved out of their shared apartment so that Bertie’s aggressively lovely boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun) can move in. From there, it traces their struggles to shift their expectations in order to fit this new stage of their relationship, for better and for worse. (Comparing Tuca and Bertie themselves to Ilana and Abbi of “Broad City” would be reductive; describing the show “Tuca & Bertie” as the spiritual continuation of “Broad City,” which ended with its pair of codependent friends learning to prioritize their own needs alongside each other, is not.)
And yes: “Tuca & Bertie” also happen to be birds (a toucan and a songbird, respectively). “Tuca & Bertie” takes place in the trippy, technicolor city of Birdtown, in which a typical day might consist of taking caterpillar trains to work and crushing on hot monkey men at the deli. Bertie gets a part-time job working for an intimidating penguin baker; Tuca lives across from a plant woman who spends her time vaping topless amidst a sea of pet turtles. But even when “Tuca & Bertie” threatens to go fully off the bizarro rails — a danger more imminent in the first couple episodes that err towards constant format experimentation — its characters and conflicts are always firmly rooted in reality.
That impressive blend of surreal and almost too real won’t surprise anyone even glancingly familiar with series creator Lisa Hanawalt. A prolific illustrator and graphic designer, Hanawalt is also the “BoJack Horseman” producer responsible for the show’s unique look, extremely relatable anthropomorphic citizens, and constant background sight gags that make pausing “BoJack” for clues so fun. On “Tuca & Bertie,” however, Hanawalt finally gets to play in a sandbox entirely of her own making, and the results are as weird as they are wonderful. In her hands, Tuca and Bertie’s world manages to both play fast and loose with its own rules — its birds encounter everything from jelly lakes to sentient STDs to their own exhausted boobs — and retain enough similarity to the one in which we live that its more serious moments land with sharp pangs of recognition.
So while the show itself isn’t related to the “BoJack” universe beyond its shared creative team, “Tuca & Bertie” does share a similar tendency to interrupt its own ridiculous misadventures for sudden moments of truth, pain, and most satisfying of all, catharsis. As 30-year-old (bird)women, Tuca and Bertie are dealing with issues like anxiety, sobriety, sexual harassment, and yes, chronic horniness. So even if the show’s hilarious first and foremost (and it is!), it also doesn’t shy away from the bitter realities of its adult subject matter. It’s an extraordinarily tough balance to pull off without dulling the surrounding comedy, but Hanawalt, her writers, and Haddish and Wong’s enthusiastic rasping voices walk that tonal tightrope with ease.
There’s so much to look at and latch onto while getting lost in “Tuca & Bertie’s” fever dream world of witty, filthy chaos. But what it does best is simple: It lets its adult women be adult women without stripping them of everything that makes them interesting people (…or okay, fine, interesting birds). Tuca wants to be good and useful without losing her intrinsic buoyancy; Bertie wants to be bolder and better without losing the sources of comfort that keep her level. Both are funny, smart, selfish, caring, gross. They’re animated birds that are nonetheless recognizably human, and it’s a joy to watch them mess up and around as so few women ever get to do onscreen.