On April 7, 2015, HBO launched its first official standalone streaming service, HBO NOW, allowing people to subscribe — for the first time in its 43-year existence — without signing up for a cable or satellite subscription. This has in no small way affected its programming decisions, as the pay cable giant turned direct competitor to Netflix has been busy filling its catalogue with enough alluring modern offerings to justify the $15 a month price tag many might pay to try out “Game of Thrones” or finally catch up on “The Sopranos,” but will then cancel after gobbling up all of the network’s classic titles. HBO wants and needs them to stick around, and that means appealing to demographics other than the older, whiter male population it once so exclusively targeted.
Now, I’m not saying the only reason “Animals.” earned a two-season pickup after its 2015 Sundance premiere was because HBO executives needed something, anything to attract a new, younger audience to its upcoming OTT platform, but I will say it came as a surprise to no one when the dark (thematically and visually) animated comedy was directly linked to HBO NOW via a special release strategy. Episodes of “Animals.” Season 1 will be made available via the service a day before they’re released traditionally, meaning you can watch it right now on HBO NOW, but must wait another day if you’re hoping to catch it on cable. It’s a move that shows how conscious the network is of who it’s trying to attract with this series, just as much as it illustrates HBO’s need to drive subscribers to HBO NOW.
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And while watching the first five episodes of “Animals.,” it wasn’t other animated titles that sprang to mind (in part because HBO has a pretty poor track record in terms of its animated content). Instead, I thought back to “7 Days in Hell” and, to a slightly lesser extent, “Ferrell Takes the Field.” Both one-off programs premiered on HBO last year with much fanfare and the slightest tinge of mystery: “What is it?” “Is it a TV show?” “Is it a movie?” “Will there be more?” In its construct and release, “Animals.” is very much an answer to some of those questions and an extension of the specials that prompted them; except, sadly, “Animals.” isn’t quite as entertaining.
Created by Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano originally as a series of web shorts, when adapted to the half-hour format “Animals.” functions around the basic idea that the personification of animals, when implemented as literally as possible, is an amusing and insightful aesthetic. The show basically works as a response to all those online pet videos of the dog wearing pants or the squirrel water-skiing. We may let out an uncontrollable “Awww” when watching those, but we won’t be doing the same here. These animals are largely innocent until corrupted by their human masters or influences.
A rat tries to overcome his insecurities with the opposite sex put upon him by preconceived social standards. A dog tries to survive a prison sentence in a dog park. A goose tries to move up a class by masquerading as a swan. Some of these plots move off into unexpected territory — Episode 3, “Cats,” features a particularly demented twist likely to appall any cat owner (and possibly delight dog people) — but, by and large, they hold fast to the familiar social stigmas associated with communal dysfunction. A fish’s awkward double date ends just as a human’s would, and so on and so forth.
The star-studded cast provides some amusement on its own, as the hodge-podge of familiar voices should keep fans guessing, “Who’s that playing the goose? Is that Adam Scott?” (Yes, it is.) Certainly the Duplass’ brothers involvement helped attract vocal talent like Jessica Chastain, Aziz Ansari, Ellie Kemper, Mark Maron, Kumail Nanjiani, Cobie Smulders and, of course, both Duplass brothers, but celebrity spotting can only go so far as entertainment.
There may be a few pun-like twists based on the breed in the spotlight, but the joke is often based in the juxtaposition of animal and human. At best, this decision works to support the novelty of the series; to build upon its niche appeal and make “Animals.” stand out from the pack (pun intended). At worst, the writing feels flat and uninspired; a simple copy and paste of cliched scenes with a few species-specific jokes tossed in for flavor. It also seems to skew pretty hard toward the male perspective, which makes sense given the two men who created it, but is somewhat disappointing for such an offbeat comedy.
Yet “Animals.” is undoubtedly what’s promised in one of the show’s taglines: “a new breed of comedy.” Like “7 Days in Hell” and “Ferrell Takes the Field” before it, “Animals.” isn’t made to be broadly appealing. It’s designed for a niche audience with a very specific sense of humor. In a sea of new television offerings, it’s hard to dismiss something with as strong and focused a voice as this, even if it may not be your cup of tea. “Animals.” may have fit more snugly into the Adult Swim brand of programming, but it shouldn’t be slighted because it’s on a more prestigious platform. “Animals.” feels pretty close to being what it wants to be, but it’s already exactly what HBO wants for NOW.
Beginning February 4, new episodes of “Animals.” will be available via HBO NOW every Thursday. Episodes will also air on HBO every Friday at 11:30pm.