I Started Smiling from the First Moment of ‘Central Park,’ and Never Stopped | Review

     May 15, 2020

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We could all use some joy in our lives, right? Central Park, the new animated musical comedy on Apple TV+, is a joy machine. An endorphin generator. A great boost to any not so great feelings you may be feeling. Its jokes are rat-a-tat yet unpredictable, its characters are quick to understand yet ever-deepening, its performances are delightful, its animation is crisply fluid, and its songs? Wowee, its songs. They get you right in the heart upon first listen, and I promise you the first listen will not be your last listen. Simply put: Central Park is a knockout.

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Image via Apple TV+

Created by Loren Bouchard (Bob’s Burgers, of course), with a creative team including Sanjay Shah (Fresh Off the Boat), Halsted Sullivan (The Office), Josh Gad (Frozen), and Nora Smith (Bob’s Burgers), the show centers in on the Tillerman family, who live on a property in the heart of Central Park (you know, that big park in New York). Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom Jr.) is the park manager, a hard-working worry-wart who wants desperately for his park to maintain its quality. His wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn) is a local journalist who wants desperately to find the next big scoop. They have two kids: Molly (Kristen Bell), who draws superhero comics of herself and wants desperately to fit in to the real world; and Cole (Tituss Burgess), an emotion-driven, heart-forward child who wants desperately to make a connection with a dog. But not just any dog. The dog belonging to Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), an irascible hotel heiress who desperately wants to replace Central Park with condos. But what does her bitter assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs) have to say about that? All of this and more is narrated by a musical troubador played, naturally, by Josh Gad.

This is, obviously, quite the cast (not to mention the guest stars, including Bouchard’s muse H. Jon Benjamin). Most of their musical bonafides are well-known at this point, but even these established MT performers find new wrinkles in their image to wondrous results. Odom does phenomenal work as the Tillerman patriarch, his righteous indignation made relatable by his constant second-guessing and lack of self-confidence (he absolutely smashes a rap about not being good at public speaking). Burgess, so often seen in extroverted roles, plays a quieter character who moves with sensitivity, and it is a good look for the actor. Diggs… wow. I never would’ve known I needed to see Daveed Diggs play a brittle, older woman with nefarious schemes up her sleeves and deadpan reactions out her mouth, but now it’s all I want to see. Gad just might apply himself to the Bouchardisms of the series the most organically, leaning into the improvised, spontaneous qualities of the creator’s work with disarming charm.

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Image via Apple TV+

Perhaps this is a matter of personal ignorance, or perhaps neither performer has done a ton of musical screen work, but I want to especially shout out Hahn and Tucci for making such huge, atypical splashes here. Hahn is, of course, a relentlessly fearless and versatile comedy performer, and she digs into this fierce, motivated, flawed, and even whimsical character with aplomb (a moment where she asks her husband to twirl around so she can see his legs better destroyed me). But her musical performances surprised me — and obviously, they shouldn’t have. On “Mama’s Got This,” Hahn gives us a delightful cut of traditional MT that pays tribute to every hard-working mother out there; and on “Rats,” ooh wee does she get her angsty alt-pop on. As for Tucci? My god, Tucci. Iconic, instantly. His Bitsy deserves to be seen at every Halloween party and at every drag show. She is mean, crude, and finicky. She serves us looks we absolutely do not deserve. Tucci makes a low and growly gift out of each moment, giving the character a sense of bubbly fun not on the page. His banter with Diggs crushes. His episode four take on the word “friggin'” is a symphony. Stanley Tucci as Bitsy Brandenham for President.

There is one cast member I do need to talk about, though — and I would understand completely if it completely turns you off from the series. Owen and Paige are a mixed-race couple. Owen is black, Paige is white, and their respective voice actors are, too. The characters’ children are thus biracial. Their son Cole is played by Burgess, who is black. But their daughter Molly is played by Bell, who is white. And the choice of having Bell play a biracial character is very strange, at “best.” Molly is a powerful character, perhaps my favorite. Her desire to fit in and propensity to escape into worlds of her own creation is primal in its relatability. Bell is, obviously, a helluva musical voice actor, digging charmingly into the awkwardness of the character and singing the hell out of her numbers (I repeated one Bell showcase in episode two approximately 9000 times, and you will too). The show, like Bob’s Burgers before it, is obviously unafraid of using the form of animation to play with casting that doesn’t line up with their performers’ identities — two of the main female roles are played by men, for goodness’ sake.

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Image via Apple TV+

And yet… The casting choice of Bell, however talented she is, however good the production’s intentions are, strike me as puzzlingly problematic. One of the most powerful aspects of Molly’s character is her superhero alter ego. When the show dives into her superhero comics, we see that her self-portrait’s source of power is her hair. Her locks transform into whatever she needs them to be, punching bad guys and making people dance along to her songs — never once appearing straightened, always retaining their natural state of being. Her hair as itself — and subsequently she as herself — makes her super. I found this to be a wonderful message, one I believe could not just subtly and effectively empower young black women of Molly’s age watching, but serve as a needed strike in the ongoing glass structure of on screen representation. So, like, wouldn’t this message be one million times more powerful if it was delivered by an actual black actress? Yikes. I guess every otherwise perfect animated series needs one problematic casting choice. BoJack Horseman had Alison Brie as a Vietnamese-American character, Central Park has this.

And now: I’m going to geek out about music theory. The tunes in this sucker slap. While each episode seems to have a certain few house songwriters turning in consistent work (special shout out to Brent Knopf for his inspirational disco bop “Do It While You Can”), they also seem to hire specific writers to tackle just one song or episode at a time. This gives us sterling talent like Sara BareillesRafael CasalUtkarsh Ambudkar, the songwriters behind Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, and friggin’ Cyndi Lauper. And they came to play. From the very first number, a grand opening tune in the tradition of “Belle,” blowing the roof off the sucker with its “they could afford this on streaming?” orchestral arrangements, the work here is phenomenal. If you dug Bob’s Burgers‘ musical numbers and wanted more, Central Park will scratch your itch and thensome.

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Image via Apple TV+

The music, from a chordal, compositional standpoint (told ya I was gonna geek), also helps speak to the textual and tonal melancholies going on in the DNA of the show. Central Park isn’t just a show about nice people doing nice things. It’s rife with difficult, emotion-driven complications. It’s a serialized deep-dive into the procedures of local politics. It’s tackling huge issues like gentrification, classism, and waste management. There’s a very adult understanding behind the childlike wonder of the show — and the chords of the tunes tell this story, too. The Bareilles-penned “Weirdos Make Great Superheroes,” my favorite number of the series thus far, is structured around a verse that never hits the root of the chordal center. We go IV-V-iii-IV, over and over again, with no satisfying I to orient us — a perfect composition choice for a song, and a world, defined by desire not quite yet achieved. And when the soaring chorus does smack us (and smack us it does), we finally get that tasty I… and then it immediately pivots to two minor chords in succession. Even when characters and songs get what they want, the lurking edge is around the corner. I’ll spare you from deep analyses of the rest of the tunes, but I’ll say this as a final thought: These songs love to go I-iii, which I would characterize as perhaps the most melancholy chord progression we have. Just one note changes, the root moving down one half-step, our joys moving to difficult realizations, and vice versa. Embedded into the series with subtle mastery. I love this show!

If Parks and Recreation was an optimistic sitcom about local politics softened by the hazy allure of the promise of Obama’s America, Central Park is an optimistic sitcom about local politics hardened by the stark realities of Trump’s America. It is full of all-caps JOY, no doubt. But it knows that joy comes with work, comes with practice, comes with yearning, comes with reckoning. And it’s got the catchy tunes and thensome to prove its point.

Central Park comes to Apple TV+ May 29.

Grade: A-

Television