With cancellation of ‘Tuca & Bertie,’ Netflix perpetuates skewed programming priorities

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The surreal, lush world of “Tuca & Bertie” is a sight to behold. Tucked amid colorful, hand-drawn frames are the lovingly detailed renderings of a city populated by anthropomorphic animals and plants navigating their lives. It’s the type of show where, instead of hitting the “Skip Intro” button, you actually want to watch each episode’s opening sequence to take in the lively and vibrant images on-screen.

The overarching premise of “Tuca & Bertie” is one that is well worn, but with the comfort of a favorite pair of broken-in shoes. The titular characters are best friends trying to figure out life and awkwardly filling out the molds of their selves to become the people (well, birds) they were meant to be. Along the way, they make both petty and grave mistakes, fall in and out of love, and stumble their way into happiness — always by one another’s side.

It’s rare for a show to evoke a world as beautiful and strange as that of “Tuca & Bertie.” It’s even rarer for one to augment this sort of creative achievement with thematically challenging and often unseen storylines; “Tuca & Bertie” addresses topics as varied and poignant as sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction. The show is also atypical in the television-scape in that it features a cast largely composed of people of color (helmed by the excellent trio of Tiffany Haddish, Ali Wong and Steven Yeun) and is led by a woman (show creator Lisa Hanawalt).

What’s not a rare occasion is the cancellation of a series with all of these glittering and tangibly significant characteristics in its favor before it’s received its due creative course. In the past few years, Netflix has axed multiple shows led by people of color and women, among them “The Get Down,” “Sense8,” “Lady Dynamite” and “One Day at a Time” (which recently made TV history by becoming the first canceled streaming series to be revived on a cable network). Unfortunately, “Tuca & Bertie” has been pushed into this programming vortex, as Hanawalt revealed in a tweet on July 24 that it would not be renewed by Netflix for a second season.

The cancellation has been hypothesized to have been due to a multitude of causes, though most are obscured in Netflix’s characteristic vagueness around its show lineups. Some have called out the imperfect functionality of Netflix’s display algorithm, which prioritizes certain titles over others on users’ homepages. Ultimately, in the short three months since its premiere, “Tuca & Bertie” may not have gotten the advertising it deserves or may have been shunted to the side in favor of other titles.

The show is a creative complement to two other shows that have found success in the past few years of millennial-targeted television. In plot, it mirrors “Broad City,” with its focus on female friendship and the more gnarly bits of being a woman navigating a hostile world. “Tuca & Bertie” depicts its female characters as flawed, horny, gross, funny, tender — in full, a multifaceted portrait of being women in a bird-eat-bird world. Stylistically, it’s similar to “BoJack Horseman,” a show whose characters inhabit a world populated by walking, talking animals (and one that Hanawalt has also worked on).

For all the similarities between the shows, however, there are undeniable discrepancies in the treatment of “Tuca & Bertie” and “BoJack.” After an uneven first season, the latter eventually found its grounding, rounding out with an excellent fifth season and renewed for a sixth. Because of Netflix’s lock-and-key statistics reporting, we can’t know how the shows performed in comparison to each other (nor the viewing rates in general for “Tuca & Bertie”), but the contrast between the treatment of the respective series is stark. Even in the fictional world of adult-targeted, anthropomorphic animation, a male antihero is still given more of a chance than his female counterparts in reaching a fully fleshed-out narrative arc.

The loss of “Tuca & Bertie” is an issue that is systemic, algorithmic and corporate. But no matter what or who is to blame, the matter comes down to the cancellation of a show that means a lot to many people who don’t get to see their lived experiences on-screen — at least not in the authentic, unsterilized perspective that the likes of “Tuca & Bertie” present. The cancellation functions as a two-pronged stab in the back — in the sense of losing representation in a tangible sense for the cast and creators behind the screen, and in the loss of the stories being told.

Since Hanawalt’s announcement, there has been vocal pushback from fans of the show against its cancellation. Thousands have circulated petitions calling for its renewal (now centralized at https://savetucaandbertie.com/), and many have taken to social media to express their outrage (under the hashtag #RenewTucaandBertie). We can only hope that this gem of a show will find its way to a new nest of a network, somewhere that will give it the time and space it deserves to continue to explore the world Hanawalt and the rest of the cast have established.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].