Binge or Purge?: Tuca & Bertie.
This twitchy millennial sitcom struggles to land its ideas due to its manic style.
Lisa Hanawalt’s new animated creation, Tuca & Bertie, landed on Netflix with much fanfare. Many expected another subversive comedy darling, along the lines of her work on BoJack Horeseman. While both projects share a surreal aesthetic and wild imagination, Tuca & Bertie feels scattershot where BoJack is laser focused. Most jokes zing past your eyes and ears too fast to actually register them. While some of the progressive and feminist themes manage to develop, the series as a whole feels overcrowded, a jungle instead of a garden where ideas crush each other for a chance in the sunlight.
Tuca & Bertie (2019).
Tuca and Bertie are former roommates and long-time best friends. Now that Bertie (Ali Wong), a neurotic song bird with a stable but thankless job, is in an “adult relationship” with her boyfriend, Speckles (Stephen Yeun), Tuca has had to move out…to an apartment one floor up. Free spirited and unfiltered, Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) makes do in the gig economy while trying to help Bertie stick up for herself.
Episode 1: The Sugar Bowl.
Tuca refuses to move the last of her stuff out of Bertie and Speckles apartment, trying to keep her toehold in her best friend’s life. Things go wrong when she borrows a bowl of sugar from Bertie which actually contains the ashes of Speckle’s grandmother, and the two friends have to retrieve it when Tuca loses it.
Tuca & Bertie doesn’t make a great first impression. The opening song is dreadful, just Tuca and Bertie saying their names over and over. The animation style is loose and almost sloppy, like the kind of wet-noodle doodles of 1990’s Nickelodeon cartoons. The frantic and frenetic pace also feels like a throwback to those cartoons, part Rocko’s Modern Life or Ren and Stimpy. The episode whips visual jokes and references at you so fast you’d need to frame-by-frame it to make sense of them. There is also quite a bit of those shows’ nonsense, things that seem to appear in the world of Tuca and Bertie just because it bubbled out of the creator’s subconscious.
The structure of the episode is very generic “apartment sitcom” material. The series as a whole makes numerous nods to Seinfeld, adopting its methods. Wacky friend Tuca/Kramer shows up and involves uptight Bertie/George in a hairbrained adventure. As you can see, the missing ingredient is a Jerry, the wry observer who comments on and mitigates the conflicting impulses of his friends. While it does freshen some of those ideas up by being solidly female focused, it’s not subverting the tropes so much as adapting them.
Episode 2: The Promotion.
Bertie’s company has a senior management opening that she would be perfect for, but between the boy’s club atmosphere of management and her own neurotic self-doubt, she’s unable to go after it. Tuca takes a temp job in the company to support Bertie, but winds up being the front runner for the job herself.
Once again, the episode gets off to a rocky start. Another trope the show leans hard on is millennial clichés, with Tuca being the repository of every stereotype of a millennial you can think of. Like in Uncle Drew, Tiffany Haddish seems to only have one mode: over the top. The result is an abrasive character that lacks any subtlety or nuance. Bertie is the opposite, all interior mental hang-ups. Her head is too busy while Tuca’s seems completely empty.
That being said, the second episode really finds solid ground when Tuca and Bertie are both working at the same job. The “all Id” and “all superego” characters start rowing in the same direction, and the cultural commentary on office culture, gender power dynamics, and the modern economy are deft and well executed. They’re not the freshest takes, but they are genuine and excellently implemented. Despite hating the first ten minutes, I wound up really enjoying this episode.
Episode 3: The Deli Guy.
Bertie struggles with how her job and love life have become a soul crushing routine. Tuca falls for the counter guy at an artisanal deli, but loses all of her fearlessness around him. Now it’s Bertie’s turn to fire up her best friend and help her go after what she wants.
This episode feels like it was meant to actually be the second episode. The first episode injected the story with a million plot ideas, none of which showed up at all in the actual second episode. Here, some of them start to actually become meaningful, such as Bertie struggling with the safety of her current relationship versus the allure of a chef she met while getting back the sugar bowl. Tuca is still brash, but now she finally gets some development and we start to see her interior life. While the episode works on a structural level, it feels dull next to the craziness of the first episode and the righteous insights of the second.
Binge or Purge?
Tuca & Bertie seems to be headed in a positive direction…but I can’t say that I’ve found enough to make me want to stick it out. That being said, I’m clearly not the target audience. Tuca & Bertie is all about millennial women and their experiences. I applaud a show that flips the perspective nob from the (shitty) default position of male to female. That actually makes me more interested in the show, but I just can’t get over the show’s failings. I wish I could have started watching at episode two, and not have been so put off by all of the manic missteps. Unfortunately, that lousy pilot poisoned the well, and I’m going to have to say: purge.