[This is a review of the Animal Kingdom pilot (part 1 of the two-part series premiere). There will be SPOILERS.]
Considering all the potential ways a television project can fail, it's a small miracle that anything gets made. But even once a show has been fortunate enough to reach the pilot stage, there are a plethora of new challenges to overcome. Besides all the logistical headaches that come with budgets and production schedules, there's the even bigger creative hurdle of establishing a series' setting and introducing its story and main characters, all while remaining compelling enough to draw the viewer in for future episodes.
With TV pilots, the trick is telling the story without getting bogged down in dialogue-heavy scenes of exposition. But with so much table setting to do up front, sometimes this is unavoidable. In some cases, a show's premiere may use a device, such as a narrator, voiceover or flashbacks, to get the audience up to speed, especially if there's important backstory that needs to be explained. In others, exposition is casually plugged into character introductions to keep things moving. And in the case of a show like TNT's new family crime drama Animal Kingdom, the audience is simply dropped in and quickly immersed into the show's world, gleaning necessary story information through the eyes of its lead character, a technique that proves to be the premiere's biggest strength.
Based on the critically acclaimed 2010 Australian film of the same name, Animal Kingdom follows 17-year-old Joshua "J" Cody (Finn Cole, Peaky Blinders), who, after his mother's death from a heroin overdose, moves in with his estranged grandmother Janine (Ellen Barkin), his perpetually shirtless uncles Craig (Ben Robson, Vikings) and Deran (Jake Weary, It Follows), and close family friend Baz (Scott Speedman). From J's perspective -- and with how quickly the pilot moves along -- we can feel the sharp and abrupt shift his way of life takes. Suddenly, he goes from living in a cheap apartment with a drug-addled single parent to living in beautiful Southern California suburbia amongst what are essentially strangers already embracing him as family. Needless to say, it's a lot to take in and J doesn't seem entirely comfortable, especially after he discovers his new family has some dark secrets.
While some shows would have drawn out and played up the mystery, Animal Kingdom jumps right in, as we learn that the Cody family, led by matriarch Janine (also known as "Smurf"), are a powerful and successful criminal organization. And even before Smurf's boys rob a jewelry store toward the end of the pilot, the clues of their enterprise are in plain view for J and the audience to see. Fast cars, expensive toys, crowded pool parties and bundles of cash nonchalantly strewn across the kitchen counter tell us all we need to know without any of the characters actually saying anything -- that the Codys live by their own rules and their fast-lane lifestyle isn't funded by conventional means.
In one particular scene on the beach, the pilot conveys much of what the show is really about with almost no dialogue at all. As the Cody brothers are confronted by a group of surfers, Craig hands J a pistol, directing him to intimidate the men. There's a moment of hesitation where J looks down at the gun (possibly holding one for the first time), but then raises it to get the surfers to back away and leave their boards for the taking. In a way, the scene encapsulates the conflict going on within J in the midst of the chaotic transition he's going through. On the one hand, he's still unsure that hanging around these people is a good thing for him, but he can't deny the rush he got from wielding the weapon. In that moment, he learns that, in the world of the Cody family, the dominant use power and violence to take what they want -- something that the show's title also surely speaks to.
Later on, as J becomes involved in the clan's activities, his sense of uncertainly about his new surroundings intensifies, especially with the sudden and unexpected return of "Pope" (Shawn Hatosy, Fear the Walking Dead), the eldest Cody brother. Recently released from prison, Pope's coldness, obsessiveness toward his mother, and overall bizarre behavior is worrisome to J, but it's Pope's violent beating of man while on a mission to acquire a getaway vehicle for an upcoming heist that really frightens the youngest Cody family member. A bit later, J sees more of how the Codys support their luxurious lifestyle, as he comes home to find his uncles pulling a bullet from Craig's shoulder and Deran crying in his mother's lap after that same heist.
The fast-paced pilot certainly does a terrific job of showing rather than telling its story, but one could argue that it reveals its hand a little too early and often in this first episode. However, considering the strange (and in some instances, downright creepy) family dynamics at play here, there seems to be a lot of background history that has yet to be uncovered. And with the hint that law enforcement is also on their trail, there will certainly be plenty of drama to mine from upcoming episodes -- not to mention drama in discovering how J's role in all of this will play out.
With that said, the pilot's brisk pace doesn't lend itself much for character development, beyond J, Pope and Smurf -- the latter of whom constantly switches from being a caring parental figure to a respect-demanding commander-in-chief. Craig and Deran are particularly one-note in the pilot, serving almost solely as the Cody clan's muscle. Hopefully, as the series moves along, we will get more of a sense of what makes these guys tick.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the new series is that much of it does feel quite familiar, mostly to FX's Sons of Anarchy. And while Kurt Sutter's biker gang drama was far from perfect, the familial, crime and even thematic elements (self-identity, place of belonging) will undoubtedly draw some comparisons. Still, with an exciting pilot, plenty of intrigue, and some original story potential, Animal Kingdom is definitely worth a shot.
Animal Kingdom season 1 continues with 'Stay Close, Stay Together' next Tuesday @9pm on TNT.