There is something deeply sad and gut-wrenchingly lonely about a city at night. Something about the empty streets and the sleepless street-walkers evokes a sense of sorrow that rarely rears its head during the daytime. When everything is still and the city sounds quiet to a low hum, the feelings that stay hidden during the day bubble to the concrete surface. Dejection, loneliness, and restlessness define this state of the city, and form the driving mood of the latest episode of Lisa Hanawalt’s animated comedy, Tuca & Bertie.
The fourth episode of an already stellar second season, “Nighttime Friend” brings Tuca & Bertie to new highs, both emotionally and visually. The episode places Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) at the center of the plot, a rarity for the show but a welcome breath of fresh air from the ever-present anxiety of her best friend, Bertie (Ali Wong). Following Tuca as she embarks on a series of nighttime odysseys through Bird Town, the episode charts her insomnia-driven quest for a new companion. Searching for a “nightfriend,” Tuca seeks to break free of the codependency that defines her life with her “dayfriend,” Bertie. Codependency is a recurring theme in Tuca’s life, serving as a way for her to build up walls around herself by hiding, whether that be through her complicated bond with Bertie or her history of substance abuse. By searching the city at night for a new friend, Tuca seeks to break the old patterns that have governed her life and relationships.
Tuca’s nighttime excursions lead her down a variety of odd, surreal, and touching avenues. We witness Tuca interacting with her hospitalized Aunt Tallulah (Jenifer Lewis). The two share a strange repartee, verging on outright bullying. Tuca is defined in many ways by her own selflessness, her unwillingness to put herself before others. From her tolerance of her sick aunt, we also see Tuca encounter and place before herself a variety of repressed, desperate, and sleepless characters. One is a bird, attempting to fly only to collapse in a pile on the ground. Fiercely independent, the bird refuses Tuca’s help, stubbornly alone to the end. Another memorable character is a street cleaner, that staple of nighttime excursions and insomnia-fueled adventures. Obsessed with filth and its complete eradication, Tuca’s interactions with the fanatical worker leave him with the startling realization that perhaps the city’s filth was a substitute for dealing with his own internalized struggles. Perhaps most memorably, Tuca finds herself in the midst of a cult film screening. Enthralled by the screening of Vintage Campy Sexy Movie, a cheap knockoff of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience is populated by over-sexed virgins. In yet another example of her selflessness, Tuca educates the audience about sex, exposing them to more than they bargained for at the screening.
Sex isn’t a driving force behind Tuca’s nighttime wanderings, her search for a “nighttime friend,” or the episode for that matter. Like the virgins at the film screening, Tuca knows she wants to be with someone, but maybe isn’t seeking out a sexual relationship at this point. She’s scared of herself, her world, and her changing relationships, much like the virgins are scared of actually having sex. While she never rules sex out explicitly, Tuca clearly seems to want something else, something different than the relationships she has had before. “Nighttime Friend” reaches its stirring resolution upon Tuca’s discovery of just the person she needed all along.
Kara, the nurse caring for Aunt Tallulah in the hospital, turns out to be just the nighttime friend Tuca has been looking for all along. She calls out Tuca for allowing Tallulah to bully her, recognizing another helping individual, albeit one in desperate need of emotional repair. The two embark on a final late-night walk through Bird Town, eating at diners and exploring cemeteries with a newfound sense of peace. Through the discovery of a new “nighttime friend,” totally separate from Bertie, Tuca manages to find a new side of herself, one that allows her to function as her own human being.
“Nighttime Friend” is one of the most beautifully animated episodes to ever be televised, full of inventive animation techniques depicting the inscrutability of the city at nighttime and the loose logic of a world experienced between dream and reality. Tuca’s insomnia-addled brain is given perfect form onscreen, an atmosphere full of oppressive mania and beautifully expansive cityscapes. Music works in perfect unison with visuals throughout “Nighttime Friend,” providing a woozy soundtrack to the wanderings of a lonely soul searching for companionship. Tuca & Bertie always boasts tremendous animation and design, but the latest episode pushes the animators to outer reaches of their talents, challenging them with conjuring up a word recognizable yet alien from what we have seen from Bird Town before. Lisa Hanawalt’s talented animators are more than up to the task however, delivering memorable visuals fueled by endless imagination and deep feeling.
Four episodes deep into an unexpected but welcome second season, Tuca & Bertie achieves another revelation of an episode in “Nighttime Friend.” Possibly the show’s finest hour, “Nighttime Friend” is packed with pathos and invention. It could be argued that in focusing so intently on Tuca and her experiences, the episode leaves Bertie and her boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun) with forgettable storylines. I would agree that these two are rendered a bit meaningless this episode, but the episode’s singular focus is what allows Tuca’s story to resonate so deeply. Few moments in television are as satisfying as the final moments before Tuca finally manages to slip into unconsciousness, breaking the cycle of insomnia plaguing her throughout the episode. Lying in the lap of her newfound friend Kara, Tuca falls asleep to the calming sounds of her singing into her ears. In “Nighttime Friend,” Tuca learns to leave her loneliness behind with the city, to not allow her desperation to control her life. She learns contentment with herself, a self-satisfaction brought on by a new friendship with no strings attached. Perhaps the city isn’t so lonely if you have someone to share it with.
Tuca & Bertie season 2 airs on Sundays 11:30 p.m. EST on Adult Swim and also on adultswim.com.