Animal Kingdom, TNT’s take on the 2010 Australian drama, is a sunny, twisted delight.
A lot of people aren’t going to like TNT’s Animal Kingdom for the exact reasons I really responded to it. Granted, I have never seen the original 2010 Australian film of the same name which inspired the new TNT series, so maybe that impacted my reactions. Those looking to this Animal Kingdom to be a plot-driven action drama need to modulate their reactions. The finished product, based on the three episodes I’ve seen, is a classic character drama, allowing time for interpersonal relationships to build in unexpected and intriguing ways before a presumed blow-out first season finale.
We know something’s off with the Cody family from the first scene as J (Josh, played by Peaky Blinders‘ Finn Cole) passively watches Press Your Luck as paramedics attend to his overdosed mother. When she dies, J reaches out to his grandmother Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin) for help, and he moves in with her. After meeting his uncles, J is quickly educated on the criminal pastimes of the Cody family, managed by Smurf and largely orchestrated by the adopted Baz (Felicity‘s Scott Speedman).
Directed by John Wells (Southland, August: Osage County), the 2-hour pilot offers a handful of heist sequences admist the delicate character building. This is a tight-knit family, and the series seems to be more concerned with exploring the twisted family dynamics than in intricate plotting, which is completely fine with me. Don’t judge, but I was also intrigued by the weirdly sexual under(over?)tones that run through the series in unexpected, vaguely incestuous, ways. Because of that, Animal Kingdom isn’t really like anything else on TV right now.
Ellen Barkin is the main draw here as Smurf, and she turns in a quirky, fun performance. Hers is the kind of character that wears a dead daughter’s blouse to her funeral and asks her grandson how she looks in it. It’s a fantastically, wildly over the top characterization that appeals to me immensely as a viewer. Also standing out in the cast are the aforementioned Cole and Speedman, two of our entry points into the proceedings. More unexpected, unpredictable, and potentially unhinged (we’ll see about the latter, I suspect) is Shawn Hatosy (Fear the Walking Dead, Southland) as Pope, Smurf’s oldest son who feels left behind thanks to “taking one for the team,” i.e. a prison stint. Hatosy’s performance is a delicate high-wire act, balancing the inherent unpredictability of the character with the need to maintain at least a toe grounded in reality. You may come to the series for Barkin, but you’ll stay for Hatosy.
Overall, Animal Kingdom makes for the perfect summer series. Its sun-drenched SoCal locations are beautifully photographed and provide ample eye candy. What’s most interesting to me is that the breezy SoCal atmosphere is juxtaposed against this dark and twisted pack of lions. Let’s see how it continues to unfold, but for now, I’m all-in on this Animal Kingdom.