When Netflix launched Tuca & Bertie in early May, the adult cartoon rightfully drew immediate comparison to two popular shows: the deeply Jewish Broad City and the less (but still kinda) Jewish BoJack Horseman.
Tuca combines the evocative illustrations of the latter with the core premise of the former – both Tuca and Broad sketch a hilarious female friendship between an uncontrollable extrovert and her insecure friend. The big difference is that the girls of Broad City are two Jews, while Tuca and Bertie are, well, birds.
Tuca is voiced by Tiffany Haddish, a rising star whose Judaism is little known. (Her father was an Eritrean Jew; her mother was an African American Jehovah’s Witness.) Bertie is played by Asian-American comedian Ali Wong, whose parents are of Chinese and Vietnamese descent.
Normally I wouldn’t spend so many words detailing where celebrities’ parents are from, but in the avian world of Tuca & Bertie, it matters precisely because it doesn’t matter at all. This is true for two reasons.
Firstly: this is a cartoon. You can’t see the diverse cast. Sure, you can picture them – especially because Haddish and Wong are reasonably famous – but the show’s cast is pretty much invisible, disguised by animated animals.
The second reason diversity doesn’t matter in this show – the less apparent, more important, reason – is that Tuca and Bertie, as characters, exist in an utopian universe where minorities are perfectly integrated and diversity, an inherent good, is presumed.
To be clear, diversity was a prime objective for showrunner and creator Lisa Hanawalt, whose own mother – since we’re keeping track – was born to Ukrainian Jewish refugees in Argentina. Her writers’ room looks equally eclectic, comprising different ethnicities and genders collaborating on the show’s rapid-fire jokes.
Viewers who trudge past the mediocre debut episode will be rewarded by the same kind of nuanced tragicomedy humour that made BoJack such a success. It tackles society’s perceptions of alcoholism, sexual assault and pornography with precision and mature realness that only a cartoon can explore.
But zoom out from the episodic plots and you’ll find a more seamless melting pot than that of the United States. The conversation over assimilation versus integration, melting pot versus mosaic, falls away when people of different ethnicities just get along.
Jews have long held a unique place in that debate, struggling through decades of anti-Semitism to reach something resembling cultural assimilation, largely by virtue of our skin colour. By erasing skin colours altogether (not to mention human skin), Hanawalt shows us a fantasy world worthy of aspiration. It’s something that Broad City, for all its delight, could never accomplish, given its deep dive into Jewish culture and firm situation in present-day New York City. Nor could BoJack Horseman, given its mandate to satirize contemporary politics and pop culture.
Indeed, that’s the biggest difference between those two inspirations and Tuca & Bertie: this bird-fest is just plain fun. At worst, it’s featherweight fluffy, with hypnotic visuals and an earworm of an opening number. If an episode manages to touch on an issue of the day, so much the better. But even when that doesn’t happen, it’s still a perfect escape from our divisive times, a glimpse into an anthropomorphic world that can never be.