Netflix canceling ‘Tuca & Bertie’ ‘blindsided’ its creator. Inside the fight to save it
When “Tuca & Bertie” premiered on Netflix in May 2019, it was hailed by critics and viewers as a bold and insightful look at 30-something (bird) women and the weird, funny and frustrating realities of their everyday lives.
Set in a vividly saturated world populated with anthropomorphic birds, plants and other animals, the series’ first season deftly balanced surreal sight gags, punny jokes and outlandish situations with nuanced storylines that touched on relationships, sexual harassment, social anxiety and childhood trauma. Created by Lisa Hanawalt, “Tuca & Bertie” was also the rare adult animated series created by a woman and centered on women’s experiences.
“I definitely felt blindsided by [the cancellation] because the reception to the show felt so positive,” said Hanawalt during a recent phone call. “Everyone who worked on the show, both on the show itself and at Netflix, was really delighted with it as far as I could tell. So yeah, it was a surprise.”
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Now, nearly two years since its cancellation, “Tuca & Bertie” is back. The show’s 10-episode second season will premiere on June 13 on Adult Swim.
The show’s original stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong reprise their voice roles as best friends and former roommates Tuca and Bertie, respectively. The extroverted Tuca is still impulsive and sober, and Season 2 will see her dating in hopes of finding someone to pursue a relationship with. The anxious and insecure Bertie, meanwhile, is also testing the waters to find a new match — with a therapist. Bertie’s reliable boyfriend Speckle, voiced by Steven Yeun, is still around too.
According to Hanawalt, Adult Swim expressed interest in picking up the show “pretty much immediately” after the cancellation was announced. She credits the network’s persistence — as well as that of producers Noel Bright and Steven A. Cohen — in making the move happen.
“When ‘Tuca & Bertie’ became available, I immediately got on the phone,” said Walter Newman, Adult Swim’s SVP of comedy development. “I probably overplayed my hand, but at the same time, I got emails from so many people in our company, asking ‘Hey, do you think this is a possibility? Can we get this?’ It was something that all of us were really invested in.”
Newman, who was surprised that “Tuca & Bertie” became available, explained that the acquisition was “a competitive situation … so a lot of it, for us, was making sure Lisa Hanawalt chose us.”
“We went after it because we love the show,” he added. “Having watched the first season, I knew there was a lot more to do with Tuca, Bertie, Speckle and Lisa.”
While streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video have increased their adult animation footprint in recent years by developing more original programming, Adult Swim is a veteran player in the space. The young adult-oriented network is the home to popular shows such as “Rick and Morty,” “Robot Chicken,” “Primal” and more.
But in order to stay relevant to an evolving audience, Adult Swim strives to “stay ahead of the curve.” This involves courting top-tier creatives as well as experimenting (and not doing “anything corny”). Newman sees landing Hanawalt’s “Tuca & Bertie” as an affirmation of the brand’s approach.
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Despite the fan campaigns that are routinely launched when a TV show’s future looks bleak, it’s still uncommon for programs to make the leap between networks. It’s even rarer for a show that originated on Netflix to find a new home elsewhere. It took a while for the move to be finalized: Adult Swim announced it had picked up the show for its second season in May 2020.
“It’s not an easy process to get shows from other networks by any stretch,” said Newman. “There’s a lot of deal points that need to be checked off, but I think from Lisa’s side and from our side, we were very motivated to get it done. And Netflix made it reasonable for us.”
For Hanawalt, the waiting game was difficult. While the sting of Netflix’s cancellation was mitigated by seeing fans of the show vocalize their outrage, the ebb and flow of uncertainty was also hard.
“I just was kind of in limbo, not quite knowing if the show could be saved or not,” said Hanawalt. “I was a bit pessimistic at times.
“I had all these ideas for Season 2 that I was really excited about, and I wasn’t sure whether to save those ideas on the off chance that we could have another shot at it, or use those ideas in something else.”
So Hanawalt kept busy. She worked on the final season of “BoJack Horseman,” for which she was a production designer and producer. “I Want You,” a book collecting some of her earlier comics work, was published in 2020. She worked on other TV show ideas.
But that doesn’t mean Hanawalt doesn’t value taking a break, or believe that “having a limbo period is bad, artistically [or] creatively.
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“I think it benefited me coming into this new season with a lot of energy and ideas,” said Hanawalt. “It was helpful to have space to think about [Tuca and Bertie] and what I wanted to do with them.”
Season 2 of “Tuca & Bertie” picks up with Bertie attempting to work through some of her past trauma. And since Tuca will explore the possibility of getting involved in a relationship, the series has the potential to introduce new sources of tension between the besties — such as questioning their co-dependence.
Whereas Season 1 carefully unpacked events from Bertie’s past that still affect her life, this season will delve more into why Tuca is the way she is and reveal the “dings in her armor.”
The season will also introduce Planteau, a new corner of the show’s universe outside of Bird Town, in an episode inspired by a bachelorette trip Hanawalt took prior to the pandemic during which she and a friend were held up at gunpoint on the street. Another topical episode will take on the myth of individuals “being canceled” when Bertie learns that Pastry Pete has shaken the public reckoning of his inappropriate behavior for another shot at success.
“I just want to, like, write about what I’m interested in and what I feel like I haven’t quite seen before, especially in adult animation,” said Hanawalt. “I don’t want to shy away from stuff just because it’s uncomfortable.”
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