When Netflix dropped the trailer for its new adult cartoon Tuca & Bertie in April, I was stoked. An animated sitcom about two birds in their 30s, voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, navigating their complex personal and professional lives in the vein of a woke Sex and the City? Sign me up. Already an avid fan of BoJack Horseman, another Netflix animated series by the same creative mind, Lisa Hanawalt, my expectations were simple: a show that was fun, breezy and attuned to my sense of humour, informed by classic millennial cinema such as Clueless, Legally Blonde and The Princess Diaries.
I wasn’t disappointed. Tuca & Bertie was as fun and enjoyable as you’d expect from a show that features all the wackiness of dead grandmother cakes, literal sex bugs and jaguars with chequing accounts. But that’s not all it was.
It was something special. The show’s impact on me formed through an intense emotional connection with the characters and an understanding of their circumstances, conflicts and aspirations — from Tuca’s fixed third-wheel status to Bertie’s misplaced career ambitions. At first, I didn’t quite understand what it was that resonated with me as intensely as it did. It wasn’t until the show’s cancellation was announced last week that I realized it’s because Tuca & Bertie is unapologetically queer.
Not just explicitly queer — though Tuca is canonically bisexual — but thematically queer in its embrace of non-normalcy. The show pushes back against a society where you are expected to be married with kids in the suburbs by the time you’re in your 30s. It’s a show that consistently deals with the anxieties of growing up, navigating workplace politics and resisting the heterosexual nuclear family timeline. For instance, its sixth episode, “The Open House,” deals with the anxiety of growing up: Tuca is paranoid about her closest friends moving on into adulthood without her, Bertie is hesitant about entering the specific type of adulthood characterized by suburban home ownership while Speckle, Bertie’s robin boyfriend, is open to the change but is still comfortable with his current life.
Queer theorists like Kathryn Bond Stockton would argue that it’s queer to go against the grain of growing up, moving through established timelines of graduation, employment, home ownership, marriage, reproduction and loss of childishness. It’s not that we, as queer people, need to resist all of these steps — we inevitably participate in this timeline. We live in a society, after all. But it’s queer to resist or question the timeline to any extent: to not graduate on time, to be committed to someone outside of the structure of marriage and, most relevant to the show, to prioritize any sort of friendship over a romantic relationship.
The first few episodes are intended to orient you in this weird new world — a twisted universe that includes talking plants, non-anthropomorphic animals alongside anthropomorphic animals (see: the Pluto-Goofy paradox), trains that are snakes, buildings with boobs and lakes filled with jelly. It’s extraordinarily weird — the type of weird reminiscent of classical queer cinema stretching back to John Waters.
The best embodiment of the show’s wackiness is its fourth episode, “The Sex Bugs,” in which Tuca contracts sex bugs (yes, they are tiny anthropomorphic bugs) and Bertie accompanies her to the grocery store to find lotion to cure it. The episode soon spirals when Bertie panicks in the store (accompanied by a catchy musical number relatably titled “I’m Losing My Shit”), the sex bugs wreak havoc, a trial is held with two birds voiced by Laverne Cox and Tessa Thompson, the bugs form a new wave band with Tuca as their manager and a misogynist pukes up snakes. It’s strange, it’s eclectic — and it totally works.
This is all just the icing on an extremely significant cupcake: As the series progresses, the show breaks out of its established goofy-sitcom vibe and becomes more serialized, telling an important story of friendship, growing up, career goals and, most importantly, dealing with trauma. The penultimate episode “The Jelly Lakes” features the titular characters embarking on a road trip that leads to a childhood destination of Bertie’s, where she is now forced to reckon with her suppressed trauma. It speaks to my own experiences, remembering myself as a young queer child without any support at an extremely sensitive, traumatic time in my life. Tuca & Bertie didn’t cause me to relive this trauma, but rather provided me the escapism of watching a character address their own effectively, encouraging me to do the same. I can’t think of a single animated sequence more meaningful than the one in which Bertie finds her childhood self at the bottom of the lake and gives her a hug before swimming to the surface alongside her.
Am I upset that Tuca & Bertie is cancelled? Of course. I’m frustrated with Netflix’s decision to end this special, significant series. But that’s not what I’m choosing to focus on. Rather, I’m filled with appreciation. I’m appreciative of creator Hanawalt and her formidable team of writers, directors and animators. I’m appreciative of the stellar voice cast including Haddish, Wong and Steven Yeun, among others. I’m appreciative of having this incredibly formative show in my life.
There are currently numerous petitions calling for Tuca & Bertie’s renewal, and though I’ve signed all of them gleefully, I’m keeping my expectations grounded. Even if this show only gets one season, it deserves all the recognition, support and praise for its creativity, its timeliness and, especially, its queerness.