Back in the ’80s and ’90s, it would’ve been unthinkable to even imagine such cartoons as “He-Man” or “Ducktales” having serialized stories that force you to watch every week or risk missing out on what happened, Sure, there was the “X-Men” cartoon and “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but those were the exceptions. In the age of binge-watching and streaming, more and more streaming cartoons are telling serialized stories with world building and character development, while episodic narratives are mostly left to either children’s shows or animated sitcoms on network TV like “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy.” Now Apple TV+’s “Central Park” —the second half of Season 2 is now streaming — is trying to bridge the gap between the network and streaming models as an animated musical.
“We realized [after Season 1] that how people come to the show was not necessarily to watch a 10-episode serialized arc, but for the family, the heart, and the music,” co-showrunner Kelvin Yu said. Both Yu and fellow co-showrunner Steven Davis joined “Central Park” after working on “Bob’s Burgers” for years, having gained experience in telling standalone stories for an 11-year-old show and making them feel fresh and new. “To the extent that we sort of liberated ourselves from that assignment, we’re now focusing on writing 10, 13 episodes with great music, a lot of heart and comedy, and a little bit of serialization. We’re discovering day by day what works and what matters.”
Indeed, for Davis, the key to making an animated sitcom last is episodic storytelling. “We want to do this for 500 more episodes, and you really can’t do that if you’re doing these overarching stories that move the characters to different places.”
“Central Park” follows a family living in Central Park in Manhattan, and Bitsy, a greedy hotel owner who wants to buy up the park and turn it into condos and restaurants. Thus, much of the first season’s 10 episodes focused on Bitsy looking for ways to convince politicians and investors to agree to her nefarious plan, and the family’s matriarch Paige trying to expose Bitsy’s scheme. The second half of Season 2 is for the most part standalone, with episodes about eldest child Molly getting her first period, and her brother Cole accidentally mooning the entire school and wanting to change his name and start a new life — all while the Bitsy storyline looms over them and occasionally advances in the background.
“You have a certain number of categories for stories you can do, and you want to diversify,” Davis added. “Sometimes the story is about the big bad coming down from the tower and sometimes it’s a small story about the mom and the daughter getting along. It helps to have different sizes and stories, but we can always go back to Bitsy trying to dismantle the people you tune in every week for, and she could pull the string that could unravel everything at any moment.”
While most TV shows find themselves after their initial season, not every one is capable of course correcting and finding its footing so quickly. Yu credits “Central Park” being able to take audience reaction into consideration to the show being animated. “Time is on your side with animation, you get to really sit back and see what’s working or erase and start over,” Yu said. “You can redo a whole scene and call the voice actors to redo a take eight months later, which you can’t do so easily in live action. Animation is constantly about course-correcting.”
This is also true of the music, which makes “Central Park” special. While “Bob’s Burgers” often includes catchy and funny songs, they’re used were sporadically. “Central Park,” however, has three or four songs every episode, written by a variety of established artists like Danny Elfman, Michael Bublé, and Oscar-winning “Frozen” duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. “We talk to prospective songwriters and we send them off into the world and they come back with these amazing songs,” Yu added. “Each artist has their own individual stamp they put on it, and then we have an in-house team that makes sure it speaks to the sound of the show. At the end of the day, when we look at the episodes, it takes anything from nine to 15 hours per 22 minutes of animation.”
This is not to say that Yu and Davis want to stop. On the contrary, they’re already envisioning the sophomore show continuing for many years to come. “Animated sitcoms are almost like a comfort place, where you know the show is not going to go away and you can invest in these characters for so long,” Davis said. “People have gone from children to actual adults watching ‘Bob’s Burgers,’ and even if ‘Central Park’ is a different situation, there is something evergreen about people’s relationship to those characters and those characters designed for those voices. It’s a different relationship with cartoon than with the way we treat live-action people we watch on TV who can grow old or get replaced.”