“Animal Kingdom” is not to TNT what “Mr. Robot” was to USA. Yes, the dark, angry adaptation of David Michod’s 2010 Australian indie marks a decidedly serious tonal shift for a network still trying to define its originals brand. But, through three episodes, Jonathan Lisco’s effort sheds the originality of its inspiration, episode by episode, until the conceit no longer feels all that fresh.
Beginning with the simple image of a mother and son sitting next to each other on a couch, “Animal Kingdom” quickly sets its sobering tone by unveiling the parent has died. The son stares blankly ahead, not even acknowledging the paramedics in the room with him, furiously trying to revive his mom. Either “J” is in shock, unsurprised by his addict mother’s fate or conflicted over her end result. And exploring that separation is an interesting thread, one lightly tugged from time to time as the series progresses, if unanswered after three hours.
Instead, the series immediately shifts from the barren West Coast apartment to J’s next of kin; namely, “Smurf” (Ellen Barkin), a distanced grandmother excited to get back into J’s life as much as she seems undisturbed by his mother’s fate. Clearly, her motivations are questionable, as we quickly learn Smurf serves as the matriarch of a crime family consisting of her four grown boys.
Barry “Baz” Blackwell (Scott Speedman), her favorite despite being adopted, operates as a first officer for the group; Deran Cody (Jake Weary) is the youngest and most resentful of his mother’s control over the brothers; Craig (Ben Robson) is a loyal warrior with one too many vices to ascend beyond that; and then there’s Andrew “Pope” Cody (Shawn Hatosy), the eldest son and only member of the Cody crew to get nabbed in a robbery gone awry three years earlier. Fresh from prison, he’s got more than his fair share of mental issues to work through — and J is now his psychological “gym” buddy.
Hatosy’s presence marks a mini-“Southland” reunion for showrunner/creator Lisco and his former Detective. On the other side of the law, Hatosy is even more intriguing, as Pope is the wild card in the deck. Brimming with energy and unpredictable in action and intention, Pope represents the fate of the series as a whole: If his indefinable arcs can pay off in a major way, maybe “Animal Kingdom” can, too.
For now, it’s a bunch of hard bodies beating each other up, sleeping around and executing brute force robberies with an authentically limited amount of planning. This isn’t “Ocean’s Eleven.” These guys aren’t donning suits and pulling off the elaborate long con. They just drive a stolen SUV into the front of a jewelry store, grab what they can and get out. The Cody boys know how to cover their ass, but nothing is guaranteed, even if Smurf’s focus is always on “safety.”
The action — in all forms — is well-captured. John Wells’ direction (“The Company Men,” “Burnt”) of the pilot puts you right into a world you’ve seen, but not quite like this. SoCal cars, colors and shirts (or lack thereof) populate the frame, which shakes and zooms with a fearful feeling before coming to a stand still for a few truly jarring moments. Overall, the production is on par with some of TV’s best, which is now on par with mid-budget studio flicks. “Animal Kingdom” the show looks as good and gritty as its cinematic predecessor (if, admittedly, more appealingly lush, which could be seen as a detriment), giving it all the quantifiable attributes of a “prestige” cable drama.
But there’s a nagging feeling the series’ intentions are simply being bad for the sake of being bad. Even the idea of an environmental paradise corrupted by greed isn’t as defined as one may expect. J’s semi-innocent introduction to his broader family kind of turns this into a YA “Breaking Bad,” but there’s not a lot of specificity paid to his decision-making, and what he does do turns redundant far too fast. Moreover, it’s hard to shake the feeling this is another show without a protagonist; a remnant from the previous decade where antiheroes reigned and genuine do-gooders were passé.
In the film, its title was satisfyingly expository because we would only be spending two hours with these animals. But even then, the newest family member was given a choice between what’s expected and what’s right. (It’s unclear if Guy Pearce’s cop character, who offers J a way out, exists in the series.) Here, J’s only tempted. His conflict is internal and murky. Instinctually, you want J to be okay, but we need more reasons to care when we’ll be watching this long.