Tuca & Bertie, Lisa Hanawalt’s irreverent animated sitcom, frequently wraps complicated character dynamics and difficult psychology inside the candy-coated, hyperactive exterior of the show’s vividly realized world. The world of Tuca & Bertie operates by its own logic, offering up absurdity and surreal wonderment at every corner. It also helps that the show is beautifully animated, a technical feat of expressive character design and jam-packed background animation.
Now three episodes into its surprise second season, following a cancellation from original network Netflix, Hanawalt’s show manages to evolve with each progressive episode. The show is still just as clever and insightful as ever, maintaining the show’s signature balance of comedy and pathos. However, this season builds on the dramatic arcs introduced in the show’s first season, creating richer and more fleshed out interior worlds for the show’s titular characters.
This brings us to the third episode of Tuca & Bertie’s second season, titled “Kyle.” A reminder of just how deft Hanawalt and her writers are at tackling timely and nuanced issues, “Kyle” acts as an exploration of toxic masculinity as well as another hilarious installment in the show’s season. Like most episodes, the show balances multiple storylines between both protagonists, the anxiety-riddled songbird Bertie (Ali Wong), and the outgoing, if irresponsible, toucan Tuca (Tiffany Haddish). In this episode, Bertie is lost in the limbo of her work life, working a dead-end job at Conde Nest (yes, it is a bird joke). Bertie loves to bake, and her creative outlet was cruelly taken from her last season by her domineering and abusive mentor, Pastry Pete (Reggie Watts). While we saw the outcome of Pete’s abusive behavior last season, resulting in his “cancelling” via a widely shared video of his treatment of Bertie, it comes as a slap to the face to Bertie when she finds her former mentor on an apology tour. The horrible penguin, rather than learn from his actions, reenters the spotlight with a new line of apology strudels, financially benefiting off of his hurtful behavior. Hanawalt and her writers have prodded at Bertie’s traumatic past of abuse, a personal history that makes Pete’s distasteful comeback even more difficult to stomach.
It just so happens that, as Pastry Pete is executing his pastry-making return, Bertie explores another, wholly unexpected side of herself: the “bro” version of her personality, manifested in the form of Kyle, the episode’s namesake. With the ingenuity of Kyle, Bertie creates a truly ingenious, if disgusting, creation to rival Pastry Pete’s booming business: Edge Bread. An unholy mishmash of energy drink and cheap pastry, Bertie and Kyle manage to create the ultimate “bro” drink. Kyle, a simple concept, is brought to life wonderfully, and plays as a nice foil to the uptight Bertie. It is genuinely fun to see this dynamic duo gang together and create oddball ideas.
While Bertie challenges Pastry Pete and connects to her inner “bro,” Tuca is struggling to find a job for herself. Newly sober and seeking direction, Tuca has struggled to maintain a job over the course of the show. Stumbling her way through life as usual, Tuca finds herself in a job she actually enjoys, inhabiting the job of crossing guard with glee. However, Tuca finds the power that comes with her new job possesses a corrupting allure. While it is fun to see Tuca driven mad with the power that a crossing guard job brings, this storyline is underdeveloped, an amusing diversion without any real impact or staying power. However, the storyline’s themes of power and corruption weave nicely into Bertie’s parallel plotline, and Hanawalt and her writers weave the two plots together ingeniously.
In this weaving together of Tuca and Bertie’s plotlines, the episode delves into an exploration of power, in particular the corrupting influence of toxic masculinity. While Kyle may be harmless, it is when other “bros” arrive in search of heavily-caffeinated pastries that the implications of Bertie’s embracing her inner “bro” reveal themselves. The “bros” who flock to Bertie’s pastries band together to perform a hilarious musical number, a tuneful attempt at indoctrinating Bertie with their brand of toxicity. The “bros” reveal the pent up frustrations and anger driving them, lamenting their suppressed emotions and hardened exteriors. Even Dirk (John Early), Bertie’s macho rooster colleague, solemnly sings of his lack of parental approval and the emotional damage dealt by his family. Bertie finds herself deep in a spiral of toxicity, becoming the very thing she sought to combat by challenging Pete’s booming pastry business.
In a surreal sequence at the center of the episode, Bertie imagines the abusers and harassers of the world cast away onto an island of their own, banished to live the rest of their lives in solitude. Through expressive animation, the sequence finds the abusive men finding safety in their numbers, a punishment that turns out to not even be a real punishment at all. It is this sequence, full of strange, sexual imagery, that highlights the themes of abuse, toxic masculinity, and the effectiveness of “cancel culture” centered in this latest episode of Tuca & Bertie.
At the heart of this episode is the question: What happens to the bad men of the world? The comeback of Pastry Pete echoes the endless chances domineering men are given in our culture. When we’ve singled out the worst of the worst, critiqued their actions and delivered rightful judgement, where do these abusive men go? Even in the colorful, whimsical world of Tuca & Bertie, Hanawalt and her writers allow a degree of hard-hitting nihilism in this episode. As always, the show arrives at complex conclusions rarely found in television, let alone animated television. It turns out, Hanawalt and her writers seem to suggest, the bad men don’t go anywhere.
Tuca & Bertie season two airs Sundays at 11:30 p.m. EST on Adult Swim.