‘Tuca and Bertie’ Season 3: Silly Birds, Cartoon Tears, and Striking Narrative Weight

The third (and likely final) season is strikingly narratively grounded, and sometimes appallingly realistic in its representation of modern young adulthood.

Adult Swim

I was disappointed that I didn’t find the time to write about the third season of Tuca and Bertie upon its initial release a few months back. Unfortunately, it seems that we are going to have a lot of time to reflect upon this specific season as it appears to be the last.

Tuca and Bertie is occasionally deemed the spiritual successor to Bojack Horseman. It is true that both series involved Lisa Hanawalt and Raphael Bob-Waksburg, and both are centered in animated universes filled with anthropomorphized animals and plant-life. Beyond these connections, though, I do not see the series as all that spiritually related. Most strikingly, the often grim outlook of Bojack is not apparent in Tuca and Bertie. Instead, this show feels dedicated thematically to the notion that adult life throws shit at you all the time, but regardless of the obstacles are also constantly on the path to and deserving of healing. 

For a sitcom-esque animated series, Tuca and Bertie is strikingly narratively grounded, and sometimes appallingly realistic in its representation of modern young adulthood. Unlike the imagined, well-structured ladder of life one anticipates climbing as they move from adolescence to adulthood, best bird friends Tuca and Bertie both experience all aspects of life — from health to romantic relationships to career goals — in fits and starts, oftentimes taking one step forward and then two steps back.

Tuca’s sobriety is empowering her, and seems to be actually sticking this time around, but it comes at the cost of having to drop her respectful, lovely, sexy older boyfriend — a large tree named Figgy (Matthew Rhys) — who is adamantly dedicated to perpetually heavily drinking.

Meanwhile, Bertie continues to excavate the icky, squicky, and traumatic slices of her past. As her healing continues in therapy and with the support of her community — mainly her best friend Tuca and her charming partner Speckle (Steven Yuen) — Bertie is often confronted with brand new challenges as she develops new standards, boundaries, and continually excavates old memories. Just as one internal issue is resolved, it feels as if the next one pops up.

This thematic realism does not apply to the series’ delightful and fantastical visuals. Tuca and Bertie’s silly, often almost cutesy, animated world includes some of the most charming little details. The show is bright and cartoony, and aware that it is entrenched in the streaming age — occasionally offering denser visual gags that can only be fully digested by pausing for longer examination. 

It sometimes feels that the animated style of Tuca and Bertie acts as a sort of anonymous, silly shield for us to get to the bottom of some pretty loaded emotional experiences. In the particularly touching and nuanced episode “Fledgling Day,” Bertie attempts to enjoy the Birdtown equivalent of Mother’s Day with her mom. The two of them have next to no understanding of each other, yet are so the same in so many senses (evidenced in a sweet, multimedia opening montage involving the cutest little bird puppets you’ve ever seen). After a day out loaded with their usual cold quips, misunderstandings, and general distance, Bertie nervously mentions to her mother in a spa sauna that she never plans to have children. Her mother bursts into cartoony, river-like tears, but she is not distraught as one might expect. Instead, she offers Bertie praise through choked sobs: “I’m just so happy for you. I’m really glad you know what you want.” 

In moments like these, Tuca and Bertie allows for a complex interpersonal emotional experience to be sheathed in silly birds and cartoon tears. Tuca and Bertie mirrors the raw and the difficult and the vulnerable about life, but in the figurative equivalent of a funhouse mirror. The series shows you that really hard moment, relationship, or feeling you hate seeing within yourself, and turns it silly, and thus easier to handle. (In fact, Tuca and Bertie even reflects that specific emotional experience in the way Bertie’s limbs often pop off like Legos as she becomes increasingly vulnerable in her occasional therapy sessions). Tuca and Bertie lets you take a playful glance at what is difficult. 

And yet, all of this emotional depth is sandwiched between the stunningly absurd. In one episode, Bertie has great sex while swallowed up by a snake. In another, the group ends up at a competitive leaf raking event in an arena with an orgy-related curse. And the season finale (or, I suppose, series finale technically) takes place mostly within a sort of portion of Tuca’s gut lining that also inexplicably holds her subconscious (which Bertie crawls inside in an attempt to perform a medical procedure on her friend’s cyst) replete with unicorn Tucas and a mausoleum dedicated to Bertie. 

In the final moments of the season, Tuca and Bertie trot off into the figurative and silly sunset, as Tuca wheels about a baby-sized Bertie in a stroller (still shrunk from her attempt to help Tuca’s chronic intestinal issue). While Hanawalt has said it’s not the ending she hoped for the series, it still emphasizes that continued sense of healing and hope alongside a lot of big life events that are still shaky, unclear, and bound to be difficult. Maybe it’s not the perfect ending to the show, but it captures so much of the magic the series held — the sense that the joy and healing of adulthood sits right alongside its inherent uncertainty and difficulty.  

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