June 15, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Animal Kingdom”


ANIMAL KINGDOM:  Tuesday 9PM on TNT – In the Queue

The opening hour of TNT’s new ANIMAL KINGDOM is daringly light on plot.  Although TNT’s meat and potatoes programming is still mainstream entertainment like The Last Ship and Rizzoli & Isles, it’s been trying to cultivate a darker, more adult image lately, albeit not too successfully so far (Legends, Murder In the First, Public Morals, Mob City).  Animal Kingdom is based on David Michod’s Australian indie thriller that earned all of $1M at the US box office, and the network showed its commitment to the genre by reuniting John Wells as uber-producer and Jonathan Lisco as series creator, both from its acclaimed if low-rated Southland, to head the creative team.

They begin the series with more atmosphere and set-up than story:  as in Michod’s film, things kick off with Joshua “J” Cody (here played by Finn Cole), sitting on the sofa with the corpse of his mother, who has just OD’d on heroin.  J is taken in by his grandmother, nicknamed Smurf (Ellen Barkin), whose adult children Baz (Scott Speedman), Pope (Shawn Hatosy, also a Southland veteran), Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary), all but officially live with her.  The Codys are a cornucopia of bad habits, starting with heavy drug use, and they’re all tightly wound, none more so than Pope, who’s fresh out of prison.  Gradually, J realizes that they’re also a family of criminals, thieves who have graduated from banks to jewelry heists.  Lisco and Wells, who respectively wrote and directed both of the first two episodes, concentrate on the lazy yet tense Venice Beach setting, and allow viewers to put things together about the family as J does.

The Animal Kingdom film covered the implosion of its family in under two hours, but this is a continuing series that needs to play storylines out over time, and consequently the 2d hour was more conventionally told, setting out the resentments, secrets and paranoia (earned or not) of Smurf and the brothers.  Smurf steals from her own sons; Deran is in the closet; Baz lives with Catherine (Daniela Alonso), the mother of his daughter, in Los Angeles, but has a hidden life in Mexico; Pope is generally dangerous and off his meds.  (Ben Mendelsohn, who played that live-wire role in the film, has parlayed it into a career of similar characters, most notably on Netflix’s Bloodline.)  The pace is quicker but the mood is less compelling.

With its dysfunctional, unlawful family (and international roots), Animal Kingdom has similarities to Wells’s Showtime hit Shameless, but without any of that show’s humor, and with a more bleakly one-note view of humanity.  The men, despite their various backstories, are almost identically terse and macho, and apart from Smurf herself, the show’s women (apart from Catherine, there’s also J’s girlfriend Nicky, played by Molly Gordon) are surprisingly thin for a John Wells production.  Barkin knows exactly how to play Smurf, even if the character is less nuanced than Jacki Weaver’s Smurf in the film, and the men deliver the barely-masked propensity for violence called for by the material.

Animal Kingdom is the most promising of TNT’s new generation dramas, but it’s not the breakout that Mr. Robot was for USA last year, and it’s not clear yet whether there’s going to be enough variety in its storytelling and characters to sustain over the long haul.  The Codys are all chips off the same block, and that may prove tiresome, especially if the focus remains, as it was in the first two hours, relentlessly on the core family.  The network has also yet to establish that its viewership even wants this kind of darkness mixed in with their Major Crimes and Librarians.  Nevertheless, it’s one of the first summer dramas to earn a closer look.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."