The newest show to catch onto the idea of good-guys-who-do-bad-things is TNT’s Animal Kingdom, based off the 2010 Australian film of the same name (I’ll get to why I don’t think this is a good transition for the material later).
In last night’s 2-hour première, we were introduced to Joshua “J” Cody (Finn Cole), a 17-year-old who moves in with his grandmother and four uncles after his mother overdoses on heroin. Soon, Jay is pulled into the family’s criminal business as he tries to figure out his place in a group of petty thieves, headed by matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin.) The rest of the family is a cast of characters filling out their respective roles not only in a family, but in the criminal world as well. There’s Baz (Scott Speedman), Smurf’s right-hand and leader of operations. Pope (Shawn Hatosy) is the older brother and the most dangerous. Craig (Ben Robson) is the reckless but fearless middle kid, and Deran (Jake Weary) is the hot-headed youngest son.
For the first hour, it’s all mostly introduction and understanding the group dynamic (which isn’t really all that hard to grasp). Craig and Deran are concerned about bringing Jay into the family and the business, while Baz and Smurf are more for the idea, though Baz shares some of his brothers’ trepidations. Pope is the one who’s hard to read, and Jay takes precautions when dealing with the eldest Cody boy who just got out of prison. As Jay deals with his grief over his mother’s death, the Cody brothers work out their next score — robbing a store of some very nice watches. The second hour of the première is spent dealing with the repercussions of that score. During the course of their robbery, Craig gets shot in the shoulder and a cop dies.
Everything moves a bit fast in this two-hour première. Whether that’s because there’s only 10 episodes scheduled for the first season, I’m not sure. But the death of the cop at the end of the first hour flew right by me. When it was made clear in the second hour, I didn’t know how to take it, in the sense that I didn’t know what it meant for this family. The second episode is titled “We Don’t Hurt People,” but other than that title, that was never made clear beforehand. Is this family like Walter White pre-Heisenberg, doing bad things for the right reasons? Or are they simply Bad People with no moral center? This distinction should have been made clear in that first hour before something as big as accidentally killing a cop becomes the catalyst for how the family avoids the cops for the rest of the season. Maybe I just feel this way because I recently binge-watched the slog that was Bloodline season two, a show all about pretending its characters were good while constantly having them do bad things.
I will give Animal Kingdom this, though — the characters are a lot more interesting than those from Bloodline. Out of the brothers, Baz, seems the most sympathetic toward Jay, but I can also see him turning against Jay later down the line, which would be an interesting and engaging development. While Craig and Deran feel more like caricatures at the moment, their interactions with Jay are fun as they manipulate him into keeping secrets from Smurf. And Smurf is great too. Maybe not as Oscar-worthy a performance as Jackie Weaver’s performance in the film version, but Barkin plays doting mother/grandmother perfectly. At times, it’s kind of creepy, but it switches enough into normalcy to keep you guessing about what Smurf is actually capable of. Pope is a mystery all on his own, and he looks to be the live-wire for the season.
Where I’m having problems is with Jay himself, though not to discredit Cole’s performance. I like watching him constantly watch his back in this new family he finds himself in, and the scene where he breaks down crying after admitting to some stranger on the phone that he doesn’t know his father’s last name so he can reach him was terrific. But the show lacks a central focus, one that should be on Jay but is instead occupied with letting the eccentricities of the Cody family shine through instead of giving them a more nuanced reveal.
The film handles Jay well. Admittedly, I only watched about 15 minutes of the film. But that 15 minutes revealed a lot more about Jay than I knew from watching two hours of him. The film has Jay narrating and it’s his narration that makes his decision to stay with the Cody family more clear (that scene of him trying to reach his dad comes at the end of hour one, way too late). The narration also tells us what he thinks of the Cody family business — he says that as a kid, you kind of just go along for the ride. In the show, there is no narration, so I often found myself questioning Jay’s motivations throughout the entirety of the two-hour première and received zero answers.
As far as the decision to turn a movie into a television show, I’m at a loss. Switching to a new medium is inherently going to change the story, but there were many scenes from the movie that translated directly to the show. The opening scene is the same, though in the film, Jay’s phone conversation with Smurf is longer and reveals more need-to-know information. There’s also a scene where one of the brothers hands Jay a gun to threaten someone with, but it made a lot more sense contextually in the film. If these scenes were added as a bridge to the existing material, hopefully the show steers away from them to become its own identity.
But there’s enough here to get excited about, I think. Trailers for the rest of the season show Smurf turning on Jay. With her motherly affection toward him now, I’m excited to see how this plays out.
Animal Kingdom airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. CT.