Late in the second episode of TNT’s new drama “Animal Kingdom,” Ellen Barkin, who plays the family matriarch nicknamed “Smurf,” stares at out the window at her naked son, standing next to a swimming pool with his exposed butt shimmering in the moonlight.
Inappropriate? Absolutely. Executive producer Jonathan Lisco likes to use the term “emotional incest” to describe the mother/son dynamic at the heart of “Animal Kingdom,” which premieres Tuesday night on TNT.
Based on the 2010 Australian film that was written and directed by David Michôd, Lisco and fellow executive producer John Wells have focused on Barkin’s provocative character and the unhealthy hold she wields over her four dangerous sons.
“You can imagine that she showered with one of these kids until he was 9 or 10 or 11,” Lisco told IndieWire. “She’s raised these guys with love, but also with some disturbingly leaky boundaries. She’s now infantilized these boys, even into adulthood, to the point where her house is still the honey pot. They are repelled by her affection, at the same time that they perversely crave it.”
Lisco said the Cody clan’s dysfunctional dynamic is what drew him to the series. “They would love to tell Smurf to go jump in a lake, but at the same time, they’ve been raised in such a way where her approval and her affection is so important to their identity that they’re having a hard to extricating themselves from the gravity of the hold that she has over them.”
Scott Speedman, Shawn Hatosy, Ben Robson and Jake Weary play Barkin’s boys, hard-bodied criminals who also harbor an “addicting” and “conflicted” brotherhood. “We’re going to try and thwart the audience’s expectations about who’s good, who’s stable, and who’s actually the most moral in the show,” Lisco said. “We’re not apologizing at all for our characters. I’m not saying to lean forward and ever necessarily feel sorry for them, but if you do find yourself relating to them, I think that will be a great success, because you’ll catch yourself and you’ll have to remind yourself that this is indeed a family of thieves.”
The audience’s entry point is through teenager “J” (Finn Cole), who moves in with the Cody family after his mother – Smurf’s estranged daughter – dies of an overdose. But even “J” may not be who he seems. “He’s actually not purely innocent,” Lisco said. “Don’t forget, he is the son of an ex-communicated member of this family, so this is in his blood. We want to see how he evolves morally and whether or not he’s going to take things into his own hands.”
Like many film adaptations, Lisco said he wanted to take the original DNA of “Animal Kingdom” and expand it: “Anyone who’s seen David Michôd’s memorable film knows that it’s not just about a family of bank robbers who pull jobs and run from the cops… [We’re not] trying to sensationalize or try to do any ‘TV-fied’ version of the movie.”
Also, Lisco added that the TV show “can’t really follow the plot of the feature film because, spoiler alert: our cast will be pretty decimated way too soon if you follow the plot line of the movie. What we’re going to do is, we hope, go brick by brick and look at character in a much more nuanced way.”
Lisco and his writing team have already mapped out “Animal Kingdom’s” character paths for Season 1 and the first half of Season 2. “And even some bigger notions for where we land in season 3,” he added.
Now set in Oceanside, Calif., north of San Diego, “Animal Kingdom’s” plot will include elements of the law enforcement and the threat of the Cody family’s capture. But the show’s initial 10-episode first season is really about the family – and, specifically, Smurf’s origins story.
“We have a whole backstory for her in which she was living in a car with her mother when she was young, and she saw her mom essentially not need men,” Lisco said. “The mother raised Smurf with the sense that men were gullible idiots, and so when she started to mature, she decided to use her sexuality in ways that would control her own life. And what better way to do that than to supplant the men in her life in some ways with people that she could forge out of her own loins and kick the fathers to the curb?”