If making a TV show is a constant juggling act, then the process of making “Birdgirl” is like adding on a poetry recitation and a graduate-level thesis on fluid mechanics.
The show, which just aired its season finale on Adult Swim, is a madcap animated exploration of a giant conglomerate’s CEO — who just also happens to be a thinly disguised superhero. It’s also following in the canonical footsteps of a beloved classic. Judy Ken Sebben (Paget Brewster), the corporate executive who moonlights as the costumed crimefighter who gives the show its name, first appeared on “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law.”
Balancing a pre-existing character with a series of expansive adventures that cross dimensions and the boundaries of characters’ minds at breakneck speed placed the bar for “Birdgirl” extremely high.
“It’s a super simple moment and a bookend to the story, but [with] Judy looks at the cowl and saying, ‘Can we do this without things getting weird?’ It’s kind of a conversation I have with myself all the time. But I don’t have a cowl,” said co-showrunner Erik Richter, who was also a co-creator and writer on “Harvey Birdman.” “But yeah, that’s her in a nutshell. She’s trapped in this world where doing things is nearly impossible for you to do them right. It’s this constant conflict.”
When trying to wrangle all that energy into a final product, it helps to have an anchor like Brewster’s performance as Judy. From the high-kicking energy of Birdgirl’s crime-fighting exploits to Judy’s more downtime dilemmas as the new head of Sebben & Sebben, Brewster handles both sides of the character with the exact kind of vocal catharsis that really makes all the jokes around her hit home.
When the “Harvey Birdman” team all reunited for a 2018 special (Miller was an executive producer and Richter co-wrote it), working with Brewster again started the wheels in motion for what became “Birdgirl.”
“She shows up so incredibly prepared and ready to go and game, and at the same time, is making tweaks and decisions with us,” co-showrunner Christina Miller said. “She gets it right when she shows up and then she just keeps making it better. It’s hard to ask for more than that.”
The show’s core voice cast has both the talent and energy to keep up with a group of characters who refract Judy’s nerves and enthusiasm in their own distinct ways: Meredith (Negin Farsad) pulls double duty as Judy’s close friend and frequent adviser; Judy’s overachieving assistant Gillian (Kether Donohue) is almost fatally committed to her job; in-house masseur Paul (Tony Hale) is a chronic physical and emotional oversharer; product division leader Brian (Rob Delaney) is a true wild card.
Part of the “Harvey Birdman” appeal was seeing the varied ensemble play out in a style that harkened back to decades past. In updating this world for a sleeker, cleaner context, “Birdgirl” takes that essence and gives it a new palette that helps it flourish in different ways. Richter and Miller tipped their cap to character designer Carly Monardo, who understood how to meld those sensibilities.
“She did some concept art of Judy in different guises, from very gestural to very Hanna-Barbera. We knew we were hewing to the old Hanna-Barbera style. It’s still in the same universe. We weren’t going to completely go off the rails. But it was an updating and we thought this look, the backgrounds and the character design of the new characters, just modernized it. It kept it within that same world, if you will. We really liked the modern take on on that ’60s approach,” Richter said.
“Birdgirl” is also a show built on instinct. Whether or not that comes from the years spent thinking about this character’s place in the dimension-hopping world the protagonist is still trying to understand herself, some of the season’s visual highlights come from nailing the show’s subtler moments amid the glorious cacophony.
“There was a realization pretty early on that a lot of the humor we were going to be focusing on was internal, as opposed to ‘Birdman,’ which was very external, with funny animation going on all the time,” Richter said. “This is much more what is really going on inside the character. And that’s not something that television animation, obviously, is given to. So we spend a great deal of time honing and perfecting that. Melissa Wolfert, our head of animation, was so instrumental in pulling that off. It’s just stunning. And it’s very unusual.”
One of the most memorable stretches from this season of “Birdgirl” comes from Episode 4, “We Have the Internet,” which finds the Birdteam fighting back against the Sebben & Sebben high-rise office building trying to destroy them from within. In a sequence that’s not only a sensory feast but helps illuminate a main character’s biggest flaw, Paul finds himself locked in a series of terrifying situations. Even for a season that often hinges on what you hear, it’s sound designer Michael Kohler’s standout moment.
“The building is teaching Paul he never shuts up. So how best to do that? The building takes his voice away from him, but he can hear absolutely everything else. It was a moment where Michael celebrated,” Richter said. “Everybody who touches this in a meaningful way has such a golden spirit and it just exudes from this thing. He’s sort of the last step in that process. His stuff comes back and it’s just inspired.”
In addition to all the aforementioned department heads all doing focused work, series director Richard Ferguson-Hull — another longtime “Harvey Birdman” vet — also helped bring some continuity to the season. Because of a production schedule that straddled both sides of last March, Ferguson-Hull worked to make sure that recording sessions that stretched across multiple continents and multiple stages of day-to-day life ended up existing in harmony for the final product.
“Doing this in the throes of COVID, it brought challenges, of course, the thing that everybody was feeling. But I think it made the show better. Everybody worked harder against it. I think we managed to get the best out of every everybody that touched the show,” Miller said.
“Birdgirl” managed to fit so much into its first six episodes: sentient therapy teddy bears, international romances, fused heads, murderous toilets. Still, “Birdgirl” is a show that feels like it’s just getting started.
“The fact that Sebben & Sebben makes absolutely anything? There’s an endless list of things they might own that are worth exploring,” Miller said.
“We would love to do a Season 2. There are characters like Ron Funches as ShareBear. He was genius and so funny. It was meant to be a one-off thing, but he’s got to come back,” Richter said. “We’ve done the hard work of figuring out what this world is. We would love to sort of explore with these guys a little bit more.”
“Birdgirl” Season 1 is now available to watch via Adult Swim.