In the recent world of TV reboots, revamps and remakes, an Australian crime drama that made $1 million at the U.S. box office seems like an unlikely venture to join more established household names cluttering DVRs and streaming services. David Michôd’s lauded film “Animal Kingdom” doesn’t have quite the recognition of “Rush Hour,” “Fuller House,” “Limitless” and “The X-Files,” but that may work in TNT’s favor as they transport the drama from Melbourne to California. While the Michôd movie balanced brains and brawn, the TNT series favors the latter in its first episode, which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s not a dumb show, per se, but it’s one that’s more focused on movement and physical presence than on dialogue in establishing its characters. In the Cody family, there’s plenty of posturing from the men and preening from the matriarch, and like the actual animal kingdom, there’s a lot of angling to determine who is the alpha.
“Animal Kingdom” wastes no time in bringing audiences into its Southern California world where the sun and surf belie a dark underbelly. As his mother dies on the couch next to him of a heroin overdose, teenage Joshua “J” Cody (Finn Cole) can’t take his eyes off “Press Your Luck” on the TV in front of him. His nonchalance implies that the overdose isn’t a unique event in his life. With nowhere else to go following his mother’s death, he calls his estranged grandmother, Janine aka Smurf (Ellen Barkin), who quickly ushers him into her house filled with her sons.
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There’s a constant fug of sweat, beer and what I imagine to be Polo Sport in Smurf’s home. When they’re not walking around the house naked (or nearly so) or hosting pool parties, her sons and their friend Barry “Baz” Brown (Scott Speedman) run an illegal family “business” led by Smurf. Exactly what that business involves is revealed as the episode unspools. They’re unsure whether to trust J when he arrives and are concerned that his mother may have poisoned him against them. Midway through the hour, Andrew “Pope” Cody (Shawn Hatosy) surprises the family with his early release from prison, further upsetting the precarious balance of power within the business and the home. We get a glimpse into their dysfunctional dynamic, allowing us to experience them for the first time along with J. He learns what he has been born into and must begin to decide whether he’ll join them in more than just residence. How the show will stretch, expand and diverge from the original two-hour film into a ten-episode season (and beyond) remains to be seen, but there’s no shortage of material to explore in both the crime world and the Cody home. In that time, the script should pay more attention to defining the characters and their relationships in this world.
In the Australian movie, Jackie Weaver left some big pumps to fill, but Barkin does an admirable job in taking an entirely different approach to the character. It works particularly well for the SoCal setting, with her power over her brood rooted in mature sexuality. The audience may squirm at her affection for her sons, but Barkin is entirely comfortable in the role as Smurf. As Pope, Hatosy also follows a powerhouse performance from Ben Mendelsohn. He is given less screen time in the premiere to establish his character, but there’s plenty of additional work to be done here in what can be a truly creepy role. Speedman is a solid presence and a voice of reason that helps usher Cole’s enigmatic J into the family. Differentiating between the two bearded sons (Ben Robson and Jake Weary) in both performance and scripted character proved a problem, but additional screen time may help.
The series was originally developed at Showtime by John Wells and Jonathan Lisco and the freedom of premium cable might have allowed the show to flex its muscles a bit more. “Animal Kingdom” occasionally pulls its punches and some of the action scenes seem edited to take away the worst of the impacts. Whether that’s a stylistic choice or one necessitated by being on ad-supported TV is question that may need more time to answer. But this is an interesting direction for TNT; most of their dramas like “The Last Ship,” “Major Crimes” and “Rizzoli & Isles” have tended toward a glossier look and feel. By contrast, “Animal Kingdom” is gritty, despite its sunny location. Though the show relocates the film’s action from Australia to California, it retains a lot of the atmosphere of the original film without appearing to be a direct copy.
From its pilot, “Animal Kingdom” isn’t quite there in terms of competing with the most interesting shows on cable, but it’s onto something interesting. It has a unique male energy with some nice tempering from Barkin’s Smurf, that sets it apart from many shows on the small screen. There’s an air of unpredictability around what will happen next and how the unruly bunch will react. It most closely resembles “Sons of Anarchy” in its approach, but only future episodes will tell if it leans more toward the best or worst of Kurt Sutter’s Shakespearean motorcycle drama or if it blazes a trail all its own. [B-]