Just because a TV drama is tonally dark doesn’t mean it has to be visually so, and TNT’s family drama Animal Kingdom (based loosely on the Australian film) is the perfect antidote to grim television. Taking place in sunny southern California, the show loves sending its characters to the beach or to the pool, and embraces its coastal atmosphere — even as crimes take place.
There’s nothing breezy about the stories the show tells, which focus on a criminal family, the Codys, who make their living from running heists. Banks, breweries, food trucks, military bases, churches — nothing is safe or sacred when there’s cash to grab. In Season 1, we were introduced to the operation through J (Finn Cole), the grandson of the the family’s tough matriarch Janine, a.k.a. “Smurf” (Ellen Barkin). Smurf picks the jobs, and her sons — the volatile Pope (Shawn Hatosy), burnout Craig (Ben Robsen), and closeted surfer dude Deran (Jake Weary), along with her adopted son Baz (Scott Speedman) — scout out the location and make it work.
In Season 2, that power structure has been inverted, as the boys rebel against Smurf after a new heist goes bad. Most of the first season explored the fallout from a job that sent Pope to prison, as well as the sons planning a major hit on a military base, but Season 2 is even more fun to start as the crew all start running small jobs to pay the bills while they figure out their new hierarchy (Pope and Baz align, while the more immature duo of Craig and Deran decide to take matters into their own hands). J is left in the middle, yet is still largely a blank slate as our window of observation into the Cody family. He’s smart and resourceful, but is still the least developed of the main cast.
Animal Kingdom is firstly a family drama, though, and there is plenty to be mined there, as Baz deals with being a newly single parent (and a mostly absent one) to his daughter. Pope picks up the slack, which is full of tension in its own right since he is the one responsible for Catherine’s (Daniella Alonso) disappearance — something that has put him at serious odds with Smurf, blaming her for manipulating him (which she absolutely did). Craig is still involved with J’s ex, which plays for some comic relief, and Deran has a new dream of owning a dive bar, but the most intriguing plot that develops is how the sons start to interact with a local mega-church they are scouting out to hit. Instead of making it a caricature, the show allows Pope to start getting involved with it (and possibly a Bible study leader there) as Craig and Deran worry about the moral implications of the job. It’s just one of the little things that makes Animal Kingdom such a surprisingly complex show, one that continues to be massively entertaining in its new season.
There’s also something to be said about the series’ focus on the Codys as living regular lives while being hardened criminals. As they sit at a lavish dinner made my Smurf outside by the pool, she fixes them pie and other treats, paying for their apartments and credit cards with the money they stole. She controls their lives and they do her bidding — or did. Smurf continues to be the most fascinating character, not believing that her sons’ mutiny is real. Once that reality starts to sink in, though, one assumes she’ll try and sink their new schemes or come up with a counterstrike of her own — yet still making pies, and still ready to take them back.
Those ever-shifting family dynamics is what makes Animal Kingdom a great series to get caught up in. It’s a kind of SoCal fantasy, with plenty of eye candy (for everyone), casual drug use, lazy beach days, and a tightly-knit family network. They have all lied to and betrayed one another at some point, they all owe each other everything, and they’re all ready to walk away — and yet, none do. In Season 1, the threat was external, with a detective hell-bent on putting Smurf and her degenerate sons away. But this time the threat comes from within, and it’s a more interesting tension. And yet, even with all of the lies and cheating and occasional murder, there’s still something serene about watching Craig count money while having a beer on the beach with his brothers.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — The perfect summer show
Animal Kingdom Season 2 premieres Tuesday, May 30th on TNT