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‘Tuca & Bertie’ Gets a Second Chance

After a surprising cancellation by Netflix, the beloved birds are back for Season 2 on Adult Swim. “Long story short, they just immediately expressed interest,” creator Lisa Hanawalt says of her new network.

Adult Swim/Ringer illustration

When a beloved TV show gets canceled, a modern ritual ensues: Fans rend garments on social media before attempting to revive their favorite through sheer force of will. (The internet didn’t invent the fan campaign, but it’s a lot easier to write a caption than mail nuts into CBS headquarters.) There’s a practical logic to the collective enthusiasm, because it signals to prospective buyers there’s still a market to cater to. There’s also an emotional one. Trying to save a show, or at least arguing it ought to be saved, is a way to exercise one’s power—however small—at a time when it’s easy to feel powerless. While we may form a personal relationship with a given series, at the end of the day, what’s on television is up to massive institutions.

Walter Newman, the vice president of comedy development at Adult Swim, can operate a little differently than the average fan. When Netflix announced it had canceled animated sitcom Tuca & Bertie just over two months after its premiere in May 2019, Newman didn’t take to Twitter. He picked up the phone. “I don’t know the exact reason Netflix made that choice,” Newman says. “I just knew what our reaction would be, which was to go after it aggressively and see if we could make a match.”

Sure enough, there was an opportunity. Season 2 of Tuca & Bertie premiered this Sunday after a two-year wait. (The season will air weekly on Adult Swim, at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday nights; while Season 1 remains on Netflix, the new episodes will eventually be available on HBO Max, which shares a parent company with Adult Swim in WarnerMedia.) In many ways, the show is the same: It remains the unmistakable vision of creator Lisa Hanawalt, the illustrator and comic artist who spent seven seasons building the world of BoJack Horseman. BoJack was created by Hanawalt’s childhood friend Raphael Bob-Waksberg, now an executive producer on Tuca & Bertie, and was inspired by Hanawalt’s signature aesthetic: anthropomorphic animals who walk, talk, and have existential crises like human beings. But for fans of Hanawalt’s solo work, collected in such volumes as Hot Dog Taste Test and Coyote Doggirl, Tuca & Bertie is a more unfiltered expression of Hanawalt’s oeuvre. The show follows the adventures of its title characters, two bird best friends in their 30s: Tuca (Tiffany Haddish), a brash and lively toucan new to sobriety, and Bertie (Ali Wong), a neurotic songbird with a passion for baking who lives with her boyfriend, Speckle (Steven Yeun).

Tuca & Bertie premiered to rave reviews, and seemed fated for an arc similar to BoJack’s: BoJack garnered a dedicated fan base that gradually turned the show into a long-running hit, bolstered by an A-list voice cast and its platform’s growing appetite for adult animation. In just 10 episodes, Tuca & Bertie managed to build on an already strong start and seemed poised to succeed. Looser and sillier than the cerebral BoJack (the opening credits feature a building with boobs), it was tempting to think Tuca & Bertie would also be lighter. But in “The Jelly Lakes,” the season’s penultimate and best episode, Bertie’s brush with a mentor who doesn’t respect her boundaries leads to a deeper excavation of her trauma. Like BoJack before it, Tuca & Bertie used candy-colored abstraction as a way into nuanced subjects like anxiety, sobriety, and codependent friendships.

Instead of investing in Tuca & Bertie’s obvious potential, though, Netflix quickly cut bait. (Viewership numbers remain mysterious, as does the reasoning behind the company’s swift decision.) The move reflected an increasingly obvious shift in the streamer’s role. Netflix once built a reputation on rescuing endangered shows, but it’s now become a hub with castoffs of its own, including several high-profile releases; most recently, the big-budget Jupiter’s Legacy was nixed after less than a month. Fortunately, Tuca & Bertie quickly attracted suitors looking to pick up where Netflix left off. “Long story short, they just immediately expressed interest,” Hanawalt says of her new network. “Adult Swim was really persistent, and so were the fans who wanted the show back.” One petition garnered more than 30,000 signatories, unaware Newman had initiated a “full-court press” within a day or two of the news.

Still, transplanting Tuca & Bertie from a streaming service to a cable network wasn’t as simple as Netflix handing over the keys. The Adult Swim pickup wasn’t announced until May 2020, a 10-month delay despite “all parties trying to get this deal done,” Newman says. The wait was “no fault of anybody other than [there being] a lot of deal points,” including fees and exclusivity windows. Eventually, the two outlets and Tornante, Tuca & Bertie’s production company, were able to come to an agreement—and the show’s crew, headed by Hanawalt, was able to get back to work. “I feel like we really hit the ground running because I was like, ‘Ah, I have these stories to tell!’” she says.

Having gone through the gauntlet of cancellation, Tuca & Bertie ran straight into another roadblock: the pandemic, which sent the writers’ room to Zoom after just a single day of meeting in person. Animation may be more remote-friendly than other forms of production, but for a show as goofy and inventive as Tuca & Bertie, the mood could feel especially hard to match amid isolation, protests, and in Hanawalt’s native California, wildfires. “Everyone had a migraine for two weeks. It was like, ‘I can’t believe we’re working through this,’” Hanawalt says of a particularly tough late summer stretch. “But it was also an oasis during the pandemic, I’d say. Being able to bury ourselves in this stupid, silly bird world with these characters that we love I think was very therapeutic.”

Season 2 brings us back to Bird Town, the self-explanatory city where the characters live, like we’d never left. In the premiere, Bertie goes shopping for therapists, while Tuca dives into sober dating with a “non-televised, non-filmed reality show” called Sex Bus. The humor is a paradoxical mix of the gentle and profane. In Bird Town, pedometers can count farts, while the avian version of Venmo is called Cha Chirp.

Tuca & Bertie makes the most of its second chance by pushing the show into new emotional territory. Bertie eventually finds a therapist, voiced by Pamela Adlon, while Tuca gets vulnerable as she tries to find a relationship sans the social lubrication of alcohol. (Tuca & Bertie has been widely compared to Broad City, a parallel that maps neatly onto its central duo: Tuca is the loud and outgoing Ilana of the pair, while Bertie is the shy and sensitive Abbi.) In the show’s quickly established house style, these lower-stakes internal conflicts are depicted with vivid visual metaphors. When Bertie has an anxiety attack, she transforms into a forbidding, ornate haunted house, reflecting her fear of scaring off her loved ones. When a subplot debates the redemption arcs of once-disgraced men, Bertie pictures an actual island where creeps can go into exile, complete with palm trees.

This last story line feels, in some ways, like an inverse of BoJack, which memorably looked at redemption and accountability from the perspective of the rightfully accused. On Tuca & Bertie, the point of view belongs to the victim, who has to sit back and watch while a predator comes back from what he describes as “an alleged pattern of behavior towards non-famous women.” When I bring up the similarities to Hanawalt, she gently pushes back. “I wasn’t thinking about BoJack when I was writing it,” she says. “It just felt like a story I wanted to tell that I hadn’t quite seen, especially not in adult animation. I love BoJack so much. I think it’s such a great show. But oftentimes, I wanted to linger with the female characters longer if I had been writing it.” On Tuca & Bertie, she can.

A show made by and for adult women, Tuca & Bertie is a rarity even in a landscape rejuvenated by decidedly non-PG hits like Big Mouth and Rick and Morty. Adult Swim itself has faced scrutiny in the past for its lack of female creators, a disparity it has made steps to remedy in the years since; the lineup now includes series like the surreal satire Three Busy Debras. “I would just say Adult Swim is evolving,” Newman says on the subject, but goes on to stress that Tuca & Bertie spoke for itself. “I’m talking to The Ringer, so I want to make a sports reference. It’s almost like, ‘Oh there’s this great free agent out there. Wow. We can really build a superteam if we can get them over here with us.’”

Tuca & Bertie’s expansion isn’t just thematic, but also quite literal. In one episode, the group goes on a bachelorette trip to Planteau, a lush jungle city where the strippers are tomatoes and the mayor is—you guessed it—a plant. Designed by art director Alison Dubois, Planteau is partly inspired by New Orleans, where Hanawalt was mugged at gunpoint on a trip of her own, an incident that makes it into the show. Yet other influences abound. “That episode was largely inspired by [Jeff VanderMeer’s] Annihilation, which is one of my favorite books. Just that feeling that everything’s poisonous,” Hanawalt explains. “That jungle-y feeling, but in a modern city, I think was really interesting. It was also partly inspired by Hong Kong.” As Tuca & Bertie moves beyond its initial setup, it has the freedom to get (even) weirder and wilder.

When Newman talks about Tuca & Bertie, one of the first things he stresses is its potential longevity. “The show got better, to me, as it went along,” he says. “It had characters we [could] see many seasons in.” There’s no official pickup for Season 3 just yet, but Hanawalt unsurprisingly has some ideas already. (“I’m always writing down tidbits of things I want to incorporate,” she says.) For now, though, it’s joyful enough to have Tuca & Bertie back on the air. There’s something oddly appropriate about a bird-themed show rising from the ashes, just like a phoenix.