It was only a matter of time before Netflix’s days of renewing everything came to an end. As much as the streaming platform keeps expanding, it’s also keeping a keener eye on its overall programming, making cuts even when it goes out of its way to profess that the decisions are more difficult than we can know. No matter how much Netflix claims to be a different kind of player in the TV landscape, making tough calls about whether to keep or discard a show is just how networks function.
With Netflix’s announcement that it’s done with “Tuca & Bertie” after a single season, however, TV as a whole just got a lot less weird and exciting. Lisa Hanawalt’s animated comedy, with its lush world overflowing with horny birds and latent anxiety, is truly like nothing else on television both in style and substance. And not for nothing, “Tuca & Bertie” is also one of the vanishingly few animated comedies created by a woman, let alone one anchored by two women of color (Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish) who also serve as executive producers.
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It’s also telling that “Tuca & Bertie”’s wings got clipped too soon while the show’s creative cousin “BoJack Horseman” prepares to drop a sixth season. “BoJack” is incredibly smart and strange in its own way, especially as it shares an affinity for anthropomorphic protagonists thanks to Hanawalt’s enormous influence. But it’s also about a misanthropic (horse)man and his entertainment industry friends (and enemies) struggling to remain relevant in Hollywood — an extremely well-trod narrative path about people who are generally way overrepresented in media. “Tuca & Bertie,” by contrast, focused on thirtysomething women with thirtysomething problems in a way that feels genuinely new.
Tuca (Haddish) is an extrovert toucan trying to figure out what to do with her life while also navigating her nascent sobriety. Unlike most every other portrayal of an addict trying to stay sober, though, the focus of Tuca’s story isn’t the threat of relapse. Instead, the show digs into the everyday realities of what it means to be sober in a world that expects otherwise — and sometimes even demands it. The show tells Tuca’s story kindly, patiently, and above all, compassionately. Between the scripts and Haddish’s go for broke performance, Tuca transcends the typical caricature of an irresponsible party animal to become a three-dimensional character just trying to keep herself together.
Tuca’s best friend and former roommate Bertie (Wong) is a sensible songbird trying to balance her job, passion of baking, and loving boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun), whose needs she often neglects. Throughout the season, she has moments where her anxiety overwhelms her so much she can hardly step outside without panicking, a relatable feeling that the animation underlines with hyperbolic accents. In the penultimate episode (“The Jelly Lakes”), Bertie’s forced to confront a painful part of her past that she’s tried to push down for years, but which nonetheless resurfaces when she leasts expects or wants it. Bertie’s story of childhood sexual trauma — a sequence the show animates in a different, more tender style — is startling on several fronts beyond the fact of it. It’s careful not to give too many details about what actually happened, lest anyone decide that it shouldn’t be affecting Bertie as much as it is. And given the series’ careful characterization of her up to that point, this revelation also contextualizes some of Bertie’s specific anxieties around sex and aggressive authority figures. I’ve never seen a single show tackle this particular horror with such care, and so the possibility of losing out on seeing what “Tuca and Bertie” would do with Bertie recovering from unraveling this part of herself is downright crushing.
Whether on an animated show or not, the portrayal of Bertie and Tuca’s friendship and their individual struggles is unlike any others on TV. It’s also, despite the often intense subject material, very funny. I sincerely doubt many other shows would think to have a sober character’s existential crisis result in accidentally starting a cult or illustrate workplace harassment with an exhausted sentient boob jumping ship. But those are exactly the kinds of bizarre and hilarious scenarios that make “Tuca and Bertie” so special. It’s the kind of show that frustrated women can watch and laugh and understand without fear of judgment, which is, even in this Age of Golden Television, such a rarity.
All that is reason enough to be upset about Netflix pulling the plug on the show. But another reason why the “Tuca & Bertie” cancellation stings so hard is because “Tuca & Bertie” could only exist on a platform like Netflix in the first place. Before streaming networks became par for the course, there was no way a uniquely wild show like this one would ever be greenlit or have the chance to grow. How frustrating, then, to watch as Netflix invests millions upon millions in more traditional programming while treating something like “Tuca & Bertie” as an experiment rather than the innovative future of television it could be.