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‘Central Park’ Review: Season 2 Finds Extra Fun and Inspired Music in Streamlined Storytelling

After an overstuffed first season, co-showrunners Sanjay Shah and Halsted Sullivan bring in a focused episodic structure that makes room for added joy and imagination.

Central Park Season 2 Apple TV+

“Central Park”

Courtesy of Apple TV+

In the sixth episode of “Central Park” Season 2, the story is broken up into two plots. The first focuses on a robbery at the Brandenham Hotel, owned by Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), that may or may not mark the return of a notorious, decades-retired burglar known only as The Shadow. Worried about her hotel’s reputation, Bitsy hounds the police and an insurance investigator (voiced by Henry Winkler) to solve the case without invoking the legendary thief’s name. The episode’s second story stars the series’ narrator, Birdie (Josh Gad), as he fruitlessly busks in the park. Facing children’s mockery and adult indifference, he wonders if his music is even worth hearing, until an old woman and her caretaker stop by just for him.

“Sometimes when just one person notices you, it makes all the difference,” Birdie says to introduce his part of the episode, speaking the last words you’ll hear for six minutes. Not only is Birdie’s arc told without dialogue (just a musical overlay), his arc is uninterrupted. So is Bitsy’s. Rather than bounce back and forth between both plots, as is the typical sitcom format, “The Shadow” plays them sequentially, giving each all the room they need to resonate, while allowing their quiet thematic ties to unite them under one half-hour block.

This kind of simple yet effective break from the norm occurs time and time again in “Central Park” Season 2, and it’s largely thanks to co-creators Loren Bouchard (“Bob’s Burgers”), Josh Gad, and Nora Smith, as well as showrunners Sanjay Shah and Halsted Sullivan, cutting back on the serialized structure driving their first season. Originally, the Apple TV+ series set its protagonists — the Tillerman family, who live within Central Park and work to maintain it — on a collision course with Bitsy, who was looking to make the biggest real estate deal in history by buying the park and developing it for profit. Episodes worked to progress the conflict, in addition to all the unrelated musical numbers, character building, and consistent comedy.

While getting caught up in the preservation of Manhattan’s largest park via Bitsy’s business machinations and the Tillermans’ heroic public service can certainly be exciting, it turns out Apple’s sweet series doesn’t need that ongoing suspense to keep you hooked. By shifting its ambition to format, animation, and music, “Central Park” Season 2 crafts far more memorable outings than before — as they should. First seasons are for figuring things out (for comedies, at least). Second seasons are where good shows find their best selves.

Central Park Season 2 Josh Gad narrator

Josh Gad voices the narrator in “Central Park”

Courtesy of Apple TV+

With “Central Park,” that goes for the casting, too. Following Kristen Bell’s departure, Emmy Raver-Lampman has stepped in to voice Molly, the eldest child in the Tillerman family, whose passion for drawing helps her cope with challenging teenage times. Not only does Raver-Lampman have the pipes for her musical numbers, but the adult actress channels adolescent uncertainty and fresh assurance with the kind of effortlessness befitting a kid still figuring things out. Molly’s main plots involve trying to find her artistic voice while struggling to fit in at school — via her own episode told mostly in black-and-white sketches — going through an awkward search for her first real bra with her overwhelmed father, Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.), and dreaming up an alternate life outside of New York in an inventive eighth episode.

The imagination driving Molly’s arcs doesn’t end there. Season 2 is stuffed with a variety of musical genres, almost all of which are particularly well-honed for their specific stories. Daveed Diggs kicks things off with a thumping, lyrically rich rap on “Weehawken”; Episode 4’s “Why Bother” is a winding ear worm featuring Keith David; “Down to the Wire” develops into a punny power ballad elevating the climax of Episode 5; “That’s How It Happened” is a tender, uplifting duet. And those are just a handful of songs that help make “Central Park” not just a bonafide musical (where the songs actually drive the story forward), but a memorable one.

After 18 episodes, it feels a bit odd to say the main thing “Central Park” really needs is time. Anyone coming in with “Bob’s Burgers”-sized expectations may still not feel as close to the Tillermans as the Belchers; the parents have a ways to go toward becoming sharp, specific individuals (looking at Paige next to Linda speaks volumes), and the Bitsy/Helen balance of the Upper East Side subplots hasn’t quite found its strongest stride. Still, everyone would be wise to remember broadcast comedies churn out 23 episodes a year, and maintaining a steady presence in our lives over a comparably long period makes the characters that much more appealing. It also provides so many more chances for weird little choices to latch on as eccentric favorites. “Central Park” took a big step forward in Season 2 by prioritizing its episodic arcs over its long-term storytelling; it’s weirder, sharper, and more endearing. Now, it just needs time to create additional stories like these, to keep finding its flow, and to get noticed — hopefully, by lots and lots of families.

Grade: B+

“Central Park” Season 2 premieres Friday, June 25 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.

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