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Tuca and Bertie are the flawed female cartoon heroines we deserve

By Laura Dale
Tuca & Bertie Netflix

If you’re a fan of TV shows about deeply flawed men — individuals whose personal character flaws are extreme but considered forgivable due to their brilliance or past trauma — the past decade has provided plenty of options. Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is smart and always solves the case, so we accept him regarding people like they’re inferior. Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory spends over a decade treating his friends like trash, but it's all waved away because he's the smartest person in the room. Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty is shown to be a terrible person, but his intelligence and the glimpses we see of his battles with isolation, guilt, and depression are used to humanize his actions to the audience.

These protagonists are all flawed people who get to be the stars of their shows, with their abilities and backstories explored to paint them as troubled geniuses who have value in spite of their difficulties. They are also all men.

Enter Lisa Hanawalt to give us the female-focused counterpart we so desperately needed.

Hanawalt's style first grabbed our attention thanks to BoJack Horseman, on which she was a producer and designer. She was involved from the start of the production process and is responsible for much of the show’s unique look. BoJack Horseman follows the story of the titular BoJack, a former actor on a TV sitcom struggling emotionally and financially during the slow decline of his fame. He's an alcoholic, drug-dependent, and he’s searching for emotional fulfillment in all the wrong ways.

Sharing BoJack Horseman’s distinct visual style, with many visual elements — such as the way cats are drawn — remaining near identical, Tuca & Bertie focuses on two women in their 30s living together in an apartment building, trying to keep their friendship intact as their lives start to drift in different directions.

Tuca and Bertie are longtime best friends, despite, at this point in their lives, being as different as chalk and cheese. Tuca is a carefree mooch, content in surviving off money from her rich aunt, making short-sighted but exciting decisions without care for the consequences, and being a compulsive hoarder of trash. Bertie, on the other hand, is obsessively anxious to the point self-destruction. Bertie is the responsible parent type, with Tuca essentially living like a giant child.

The show starts off very much focused in comedy over drama, initially reveling in crude humor. But it doesn’t take too long for it to start layering an emotional complexity onto its primary characters, and that feels comparable to the praiseworthy serious moments of BoJack Horseman or Rick and Morty.

Tuca & Bertie only has a 10-episode first season, but the characters deal with such themes as setting personal boundaries in a new relationship, one-sided relationships, and attraction outside your relationship, as well as the different ways childhood trauma can manifest in adult behavior.

Without going too deep into spoilers, Tuca’s hoarding, careless attitude, and abandonment issues with her best friend all feel logically consistent when we learn about losses she experienced at a young age. Bertie’s need to control everything in her environment, unwillingness to speak up when pushed around, and her discomfort around aggressive men all make a lot of sense in the context of her own different yet equally important trauma.

What Tuca & Bertie pulls off, and perhaps better than the male character-focused shows mentioned earlier, is the use of these negative and self-destructive tendencies as a setting for its characters to grow in meaningful ways. These women have negative behaviors stemming from trauma and mental health issues, but both are forced to face the consequences of their actions, to face the people they’ve hurt with them, before recovering as best friends. Tuca and Bertie feel like significantly different characters by the end of the season's run.

Tuca & Bertie, as a show, does a fantastic job of showcasing a healthy female friendship, where two very different women are subject to accountability, talk through their feelings together, hold each other to a higher standard, then help support and build each other back up. Even when they hate each other’s guts, they’re still best friends who love each other, and seeing that supportive dynamic used to foster growth and recovery is beautiful.

While Tuca & Bertie has received critical praise on sites like Rotten Tomatoes, it doesn’t feel like the show has garnered the same level of word-of-mouth audience praise that other shows with flawed protagonists have seen. The show's official Twitter page, for example, only boasts 11,400 followers to its cousin BoJack's 510,000, and Rick and Morty is, of course, a massive cultural behemoth — just ask those poor McDonald's employees.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that if you look at shows like Rick and Morty, some of the more vocal audience members don’t see these shows' protagonists as meant to be pitied — they instead idolize them as proof that if you’re enough of an amazing person, you’re allowed to be an assh*le.

But more than that, men and women in media are just treated differently when it comes to revelations of trauma. Men are expected in real life not to cry, to bottle up their feelings. For a comedy with male leads to take a serious, emotional turn is exploring something that is a societal taboo: men being open about their feelings. It’s something worthy of praise in and of itself.

Women, on the other hand, are expected to be emotional, to get hurt by things, to talk it out with their friends. It’s not considered as surprising when it happens. It’s less noteworthy. Tuca & Bertie doesn’t reinforce the idea that you can get away with bad behavior if you do well enough in other areas of your life. It’s a comedy that stops to tell its depressed leads they need to get help, to improve, to stop hurting people around them. 

But beyond that, they also get to be fun, enjoyable people with ambitions, goals, and motivations. They get to be crude, silly, over the top, and exaggerated, while also having seriously messed-up behaviors they need to work on. The fact they have each other to lean on is heartwarming, and their growth allowed me some personal hope for moving past my own similar issues.

Tuca & Bertie may not be getting as much widespread attention as its damaged-male-focused cartoon counterparts, but it's a wonderful female-led analogue to what makes both those shows great while also moving past that formula of eternally broken, unfixable heroes.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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