Summer used to be TV’s dead zone, a time to for viewers to relax and catch up on re-runs of fall or winter shows they missed, or for networks to dump series they didn’t really believe in. That’s changed dramatically over the last few years, with some of TV’s most quality programming finding summer premiere dates outside of the fray of the fall and spring premiere seasons. Penny Dreadful, Mr. Robot, UnReal, and Ray Donovan have all flourished in their summer spots, where fewer series launching means a better chance at making some noise.
That’s likely what TNT is hoping for with the start of its new crime family series Animal Kingdom, which also embraces the aesthetics of summer with its beachy setting. Based on the acclaimed 2010 Australian film of the same name, Animal Kingdom focuses on a 17-year-old named, J (Finn Cole), who is taken in by his grandmother after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. This grandma ain’t the be-speckled, knitting type (although she does bake cupcakes) — it’s Ellen Barken in a swimsuit as “Smurf,” the boss lady of a California crime family made up of her thieving sons.
Smurf’s brood includes Pope (Shawn Hatosy), freshly out of prison and clearly the most disturbed of the bunch, drug-dealing (and drug-using) lout Craig (Ben Robson), surfer boy Deran (Jake Weary), and adopted son — and favorite — Baz (Scott Speedman), who serves as the de facto leader under Smurf. J slips into this world of crime and excess easily, bringing along with him his impressionable girlfriend Nicky (Molly Gordon), who also happens to have a lawman father.
It’s easy to acknowledge the seduction J faces of what seems like the easy life of criminal excess, but like any good family drama, each character soon begins to reveal their own problems. And though Animal Kingdom incorperates hardcore drug use, violence (both with fists and guns) and other trappings of a gangster lifestyle, it does so in a glossy rather than a gritty way. Smurf’s house, where the boys (technically men, but they don’t often act like it) spend most of their time, is a kind of perpetual pool party oasis. There’s plenty of sex, drugs, and eye candy for every preference, and while traces of the consequences of their jobs and secrets haunt them, it’s never enough to stop the fun.
To its credit, Animal Kingdom (which will run for a 10-episode first season) is confident in its storytelling, and surfs by at a taut pace with plenty of dramatic tension from the start. It also allows its exposition to unfold naturally, never specifically holding anything back, but not over-explaining too early on, either. As J, Cole is a little bland, but it feels somewhat purposeful. The point of J, at least as of the first few episodes, is to introduce us into this world, acting as an outsider who’s suddenly given the keys to the kingdom — if they decide they can trust him.
Two series analogous to Animal Kingdom’s rhythms and reveals (although ultimately much darker and more tortured) are WGN’s Outsiders and FX’s Sons of Anarchy. In both, a strong matriarchs act as den mothers and instigators to an unruly fraternity of violent menfolk, and Animal Kingdom is no different. Imagine Smurf as Sons of Anarchy’s Gemma, but with four (and now five) Jaxes. Similarly to that gang and others, the women who love these men (in this case Catherine, Baz’s girlfriend and the mother of his child) are on the outs with Mama Bear, creating family conflict as they hope for something better for their family than this life of crime, secrets, and manipulation.
As for the law, it remains on the periphery of the story, but there have been a few hints that the series may follow in the steps of the film and introduce a potential for investigators to try and pick the family apart, starting most likely with J. And yet, J quickly shows he has the ability to hang with this rough crowd, and even eclipse them in some ways. He as a lot to learn, but the tension comes in wondering who he’ll learn it from.
For a show that kicks off with a heroin overdose and an orphaned teenager, Animal Kingdom is surprisingly fun. There are some weird family dynamics that the more seasoned actors play with in great ways (especially Barkin), as life with the Codys allows for a very immediate intimacy and engagement. The show isn’t beholden to recently over-used gimmicks like flashbacks or time jumps or twist after twist. It’s a measured portrait of a complicated family that gives some credit to its audience, something I haven’t seen done well on TV in a long time. Animal Kingdom makes great use of its coastal locale, too, with surf, sand, sun a constant backdrop for darker things. And though the series revels in its gloss for now, that doesn’t mean it’s not also interested in what lies beneath.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Dive In, The Water’s Fine
Animal Kingdom debuts with a two-hour season premiere Tuesday, June 14th at 9 p.m. on TNT