A loopy new animated series about two birds also provides sharp commentary on restaurant culture.
Netflix’s new animated series “Tuca & Bertie” centers on the day-to-day adventures of two best friends who also happen to be birds, stumbling into their 30s together in Bird Town. The show is a raunchy, silly and often chaotic delight, propelled by charming, wacky animation.
It’s also a sharp commentary on the #MeToo movement, especially as it has played out in professional kitchens across the country.More than a year has passed since Mario Batali stepped away from his restaurants following allegations of sexual misconduct, and only two months since his partnership with the Bastianich family of restaurateurs dissolved. Countless more stories of abusers in the food business have since come to light.
But what, if anything, has changed?
“Tuca & Bertie” pushes toward a messy answer, using the setting of a bakery where Bertie works not to teach an empowering lesson, or to offer a message of hope, but to point out the darker, complicated and more disappointing reality of the moment: So much remains unchanged.
In the first episode, Bertie, a song thrush voiced by Ali Wong, and Tuca, a toucan voiced by Tiffany Haddish, chase a neighborhood bully to their local patisserie. There, they meet Pastry Pete, a chef who has won a Tasty Num-Num award for developing a fictional pastry that combines a cruller with a Bundt cake. He calls his creation the crunt.
Pastry Pete and Bertie soon compete, baking croissants in an intense, sweaty montage. What seems like a harmless scene — a smug chef who underestimates Bertie’s skills as a baker — shapes the narrative arc of the show, which slowly illuminates the complexities of harassment in the kitchen and eventually looks back further to Bertie’s childhood trauma. It’s a ruthless combination of humor and devastating emotional nuance, and it guts.
The best animated shows for adults have always used the surrealism of illustration to blow up some emotional truth. But their writers rooms have rarely been headed up by women. The creator of “Tuca & Bertie” is Lisa Hanawalt, the illustrator behind the series “BoJack Horseman.”
“I chose cooking fairly early on in the process of developing her character,” Ms. Hanawalt said, referring to Bertie. “I wanted something that would be comparable to how I felt coming up in the comics world when I was a young cartoonist being mentored by older publishers and cartoonists.”
The restaurant industry was an ideal setting, a space where the power dynamics can be particularly tyrannical and dysfunctional. Pastry Pete is well established and, as the inventor of the crunt, regarded as a kind of creative genius. That powerful reputation neatly covers up his abusive behavior.
On the first day of her internship in his patisserie, before the anxious, hesitant Bertie has a chance to even say something about Pete’s invasion of her personal space, he invokes an enduring restaurant code: No matter what he says or what he asks of her, the only correct answer is “Yes, chef!”
“When I was observing kitchens and kitchen culture, the ‘Yes, chef!’ thing really stood out to me,” Ms. Hanawalt said. “It seemed very ripe for the kind of storytelling I wanted to do.” (Ms. Hanawalt also noted that the character of Pastry Pete wasn’t based on a real chef.)
When Pete puts his hands on Bertie’s head, forcing it toward the heat of a boiling pot of roux, he is testing his own powers over her. Adding to Bertie’s confusion is her initial crush on Pete, which manifests itself in sex dreams and heightened anxiety. Wanting to succeed at her dream job, and to please Pete, she channels all of this into the more rapid production of high-quality croissants and Danishes — into doing even better work.
As a food conference approaches, Bertie prepares by mastering an impressive technique for the crünt, Pete’s newest invention: a hybrid croissant and Bundt cake. “Her Sailor Moon-esque dance of making it doesn’t really make sense, it’s pure fantasy,” Ms. Hanawalt said, “but I wanted something that displayed her virtuoso.”
Despite her anxiety, Bertie nails the demonstration of the new pastry. But when she has to leave before the party that celebrates the end of the conference, Pete gets angry. “I can’t force you to make the right decision for your career,” he says menacingly.
(Things aren’t much better at Bertie’s day job, at the magazine publisher Conde Nest, where a sexual harassment seminar involves a goose from human resources asking the entire conference room, “Who can tell me which parts of this doll it’s O.K. to whistle at?”)
What helps Bertie finally recognize the problem at the patisserie is the appearance of another bird and aspiring baker — one who, when she is pushed toward the boiling pot, speaks up and walks out. “Some people can’t handle the rigors of this job,” Pete says, but Bertie isn’t falling for it this time.
For such a weird, big-hearted, high-energy show, the realness of “Tuca & Bertie” can be acutely painful. Abusers don’t change. They often aren’t brought to justice. Pastry Pete doesn’t appear to learn anything at all or suffer for his actions, apart from getting pooped on by a giant bird.
Flying overhead, Bertie cackles with Tuca, enjoying the deliciousness of the moment. Maybe that’s because she has to, knowing that the next day Pete will continue to sell his pastries, reputation and bank account intact, and this cartoon splat might be the only justice she ever sees.