Shame, a frequent target in comedy television, provides ample opportunity for embarrassment and unexpected hijinks. However, most shows tend to sidestep the heavier aspects of shame, shying away from depicting the very human tendency to carry shame indefinitely. For some, shame is so all-consuming that personal control and agency is seceded to the crushing pull of self-loathing and harsh self-judgement. These universally human feelings form the emotional backbone of this week’s episode of Lisa Hanawalt’s animated comedy, Tuca & Bertie.
Brutal honesty and emotional transparency drive most episodes of Tuca & Bertie, and the latest episode, cheekily titled “Vibe Check,” is no different. One of the many pleasures the show offers is genuine emotional exploration, the show’s titular characters embarking on a constant journey of self-discovery and personal improvement. Sure, the two aviary friends certainly possess their faults, but Hanawalt’s writers lead the two women down consistently new and surprising roads. Both protagonists struggle with shame frequently, and the theme returns this week in a particularly poignant and challenging fashion.
After last week’s stellar Tuca-centric (Tiffany Haddish) outing, Tuca & Bertie returns some focus back to Bertie (Ali Wong) and her particular anxieties. The typically neurotic songbird develops a set of new sexual anxieties, courtesy of her concerning new erotic fantasies. Complex sexual dynamics and messy responses to trauma define Bertie’s struggles, as she begins imagining her abusive former boss, Pastry Pete (Reggie Watts), in a series of sex fantasies during masturbation. In a series of hilariously bizarre thought processes, Bertie believes her vibrator is malfunctioning, or even haunted, rather than confronting her own difficult thoughts. Certainly uncomfortable and unexpected territory, “Vibe Check” manages to explore this thorny subject matter with depth and sensitivity that never feels anything less than fearless.
While not taking center-stage like she did last week, Tuca is nonetheless still an integral aspect of “Vibe Check.” Working through her own set of complex anxieties, also revolving around the surprising nature of her own sexuality, Tuca attempts to parse her feelings toward Kara, the nurse she befriended during her insomnia-fueled night time excursions. Caught in the throes of what appears to be a romantic crush, Tuca must work through the self-doubt and constant questioning that accompanies a new potential relationship. She dissects every text message from Kara, obsessing over the interactions they share in an attempt to gloss any evidence of attraction or interest. This storyline is perhaps less affecting than Tuca’s most recent developments, but her romantic obsession and desperation is certainly relatable and provides for an intriguing new wrinkle in the toucan’s multi-faceted personality.
Another character working through personal dilemmas of self-judgement and perception is Bertie’s dedicated boyfriend, Speckle (Steven Yeun). Taking the backseat for most of season two of Tuca & Bertie, it was refreshing to have the lovable Speckle enter the picture with his own plot this week, even if his storyline felt perhaps a bit slight in comparison to the stressors affecting the titular women. While Speckle’s newfound obsession with a video game is entertaining, it is when Hanawalt’s writers put Bertie and Speckle’s relationship under the microscope that we really see anew how Speckle relates to Bertie, and vice versa.
Adding another wrinkle to the messiness of Bertie’s sexual fantasies is the matter of sexual roleplay. Bertie clearly puts much of herself in her relationship with Speckle, often to her own detriment. She’s incapable of being unattached from others, needing to dedicate herself to others above herself. Speckle operates in much the same way, the devoted boyfriend to a fault as he constantly defines his own life around Bertie’s. With Bertie’s newfound fantasies, the conflicts within Bertie and Speckle’s relationship is highlighted and exacerbated in painful ways. Bertie allows Speckle into these fantasies during roleplay, letting him, unintentionally, take on the role of her abuser, making painfully obvious her issues regarding her own agency. Clearly uncomfortable by the roleplay, Bertie still places Speckle above herself, feeling she owes her boyfriend something she does not. This at first innocent roleplay turns into an emotionally overwhelming act alarmingly fast, creating some of the show’s most uncomfortable situations yet.
When season two of Tuca & Bertie premiered, Bertie appeared to be improving herself personally, finding a newfound dedication to therapy and a genuine desire to put work in toward bettering herself. While Bertie does appear to be gaining more personal agency than before, it is still overwhelmingly clear that she still struggles with putting herself first. Few shows allow characters this gradual of an evolution, opening up the space for audiences to be put off or frustrated with characters who continue to make the same mistakes. However, Tuca & Bertie turns this slow development into a virtue, an effective addition to the psychological reality of the show’s characters. Themes of shame and self-loathing are hardly standard fare for animated comedy, but Hanawalt and her writers’ dedicate themselves to exposing the most uncomfortable aspects of their characters.
While “Vibe Check” offers a fair amount of laughs, the episode also traffics in alarmingly uncomfortable circumstances. With yet another episode centered on the lasting damage inflicted by Pastry Pete, “Vibe Check” risks a repeat of other episodes from this season. What Tuca & Bertie illustrates with startling clarity, however, is that this repetition comes with the difficult territory of shame. Shame never hits once, but instead comes in painful waves over time, a truth that Bertie will continue to discover should Tuca & Bertie be given the seasons and seasons of airing it so rightfully deserves.
Tuca & Bertie season 2 airs on Sundays 11:30 p.m. EST on Adult Swim and also on adultswim.com.