Ben Watches Television : Animal Kingdom, Season One (2016)
Animal Kingdom is based on an Australian movie of the same name that I really wanted to see, seven years ago. I paid twice to see it: once in theater where it mysteriously had no sound and once at the video store * where I paid serious late fees because I kept the DVD for two full weeks. It just never happened. Somewhere, I must've not REALLY wanted to sit through another gritty crime drama featuring semi-righteous outlaws, but Animal Kingdom found a way to bounce back into my life when the first season of the TNT series landed on Netflix this spring. Season Two is airing right now, so I thought I'd answer two burning questions for you today: is Animal Kingdom good and is it worth tuning in?
In case you didn't know, the David Michôd movie and the subsequent television series feature the same characters and more or less the same plot. It just relocated in California: Joshua Cody (Finn Cole) shot up his heroin addict mother with a bad dose and witnessed her overdose on the couch next to him while the paramedics were on their way. Alone in the world, he is taken by his grandmother Smurf (Ellen Barkin), who he hadn't spoken to for many years. Smurf still keeps her four sons around: Baz (Scott Speeman), Deran (Jake Weary), Craig (Ben Robson) and Pope (Shawn Hatosy), who is released from jail early in season one. Unbeknownst ** to Josh, he comes from a family of hardcore criminals and his mother's death will usher an important choice: does he want to be one? Because his reckless uncles don't want him around if he doesn't.
Stories of criminal families are nothing new. People have been obsessing over them since The Godfather hit theaters in 1972. So what makes Animal Kingdom's family saga worth watching? Because it is worth the more or less ten hours of your time season one requires. Animal Kingdom is one of these show that shines through its execution, more than its originality. I mean, it's a series about four brothers (one adoptive) who make a living pulling high risk heists. There's a million movies about bank robbers out there. Titles like Baby Driver and Triple 9 were still quite successful in recent years. Animal Kingdom stands out from conventional heist movies like these primarily because of two things: the Cody family doesn't rob banks anymore *** and it's adorable Californian nature.
Animal Kingdom is colorful as hell. The Codies foster no illusions of being working class heroes gaming an unfair system. They live an extravagantly Californian lifestyle filled with surf, drugs and chaos they gleefully invite. The only noble motive that supersedes their action is to always stick together and prioritize family above everything else. If you overlook this aspect of the Codies' collective psyche, they're as villainous as it gets. Which is great because they're both the protagonist and the antagonist of a series centered about Joshua trying to decide whether he wants to be a peaceful citizen or a full-fledged member of his family.
Every character in Animal Kingdom is fully developed because of that moral quirk: Baz is the leader of the group, Deran is the tortured soul, Craig is the wild and immature one and Pope is a psychopath. They all have their storyline. Showrunner Jonathan Lisco doesn't draw ethical lines between any characters (except maybe for Joshua) so he doesn't dismiss any of them. My favorite character was Pope, who got the psychopath character right. Regulars here know my long-time disdain for friendly and convenient psychopaths, and Pope is anything but that. He's violent, unpredictable and matriarch Smurf always asks him to do the dark and violent shit because he's the one in the family most capable of doing it. His own brand of badassery is depicted as dangerous and inconvenient and his mental problems as an issue the Codies tiptoe around rather than a solution. And that is cool. Mental problems are, you know, problems and should be depicted as such.
So, Animal Kingdom, like its title implies, explores themes of predators and preys. The titular animal kingdom refers to a society where people are either victims or perpetrators. A distinction that Joshua was unaware of before he was transplanted from a setting where he was a victim (helplessly watching his mother overdose) to one where he became a perpetrator (the first time his uncle Craig puts a gun in his hand). Josh spends the entire first season in a grey area in-between the two states, weighting the pros and cons of a live on each side of the line. Sure, it seems a little simplistic like that but the nuance of Animal Kingdom are not in its morals. They are in its character development. The choices in themselves are simple, but the lives we lead to get us there aren't and I'm really down with a narrative that doesn't really chooses a philosophical stance over the other. It's not indecisive or muddled, it's thorough.
I'm sure you've figured it out already, but I've enjoyed Animal Kingdom quite a lot. While it's not exactly an original subject and that its themes have been explored by other series, movies and novels before, it has an unapologetic sense of style and a narrative thoroughness to it that gives the show an identity of its own. Sure, Animal Kingdom is sometimes a little straightforward and predictable, but it doesn't pull punches about what it is and prides itself in strong characterization and an odd realism in heist technique rather than on its original ideas. I'm cool with that and I'm cool with Animal Kingdom. I'll have to wait for Season Two since I don't have cable, but I'll definitely tune-in and so should you.
* If you're under 21 years old, don't ask.
** Or almost.
*** The last bank heist they refer to in the series lead to Pope's incarceration.