[This is a review of the series premiere of Animals. There will be SPOILERS.]
While many TV shows are often initially sold to a network based on a solid creative concept, few can succeed on that concept without it eventually being backed by strong, well-rounded characters and the relationships that form between those characters, which ultimately help inform a show's humor and comedic voice (see FOX's The Last Man on Earth). Unfortunately, HBO's new half-hour animated series Animals is a comedy that largely ignores character and story, choosing instead to lean almost solely on its concept, which isn't even that funny or original to begin with.
Created by TV newcomers Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano and co-produced by Mark and Jay Duplass (Togetherness), the show presents life in New York City from the perspective of different anthropomorphic animals each week, who deal with all the same everyday problems (social anxiety, insecurity) that humans do. While slightly amusing, this flimsy one-note comedic premise fails to sustain 30 minutes of material in Animals' series premiere 'Rats,' so we can only imagine how tired and thin it will look over the course of a 10-episode first season.
For the majority of 'Rats,' we are following NYC rodents Mike (voiced by Luciano) and Phil (Matarese), a pair of best friends who, after awkwardly observing and commentating on a couple having sex in a cheap motel, attend a party with other rats in the hopes to hook up with some females and have babies. Confident and self-assured, Mike has no problem meeting this goal, but anxious virgin Phil has some trepidation about taking on such a serious life event and struggles to spark conversations, mirroring the social woes many young, single urbanites experience in daily life.
Comedically, what works in the episode is not so much the absurdity of animals casually using slang-filled vernacular, attending social events or cooking steak and eggs, but rather the intentionally banal and mundane banter exchanged between them -- like when Phil and Mike debate about whether or not bringing paper plates to the party would be appropriate. Of course, these exchanges are buoyed by the deadpan delivery of the show's leads and the inclusion of talented comedic voices, such as Jason Mantzoukas (The League), playing who else but the obnoxiously arrogant alpha-male ringleader at the party.
Another positive thing we can say about the series, but mostly of the network, is Animals' smart timeslot choice at 11:30 p.m. While it's clear that many will be turned off by the crude animation and the series' very deliberate tone and concept-focused approach, there will probably be a niche audience that appreciates its casual presentation, making for a relaxing and breezy watch late at night. Those who voraciously consume the type of alternative animated programming Adult Swim is often producing, for example, would likely find plenty to love with Animals.
But for many, the humor of Animals will likely get old very quickly. It's even safer to make this assumption after seeing Animals' need to inject two other animal vignettes -- one involving two police horses, and another involving happy bed bugs -- to fill out its first 30 minutes. Considering the series couldn't even develop a half-hour around the rats we are initially introduced to, it makes sense that the show was originally conceived as a short -- a format much better suited for the material and the concept.
With the promise that each week will follow different animals and a different set of characters, it becomes clear that the series has to little to offer beyond the humor of animals talking and behaving like humans in modern society. Without taking the time to develop characters or narrative arcs, the series is essentially banking everything on the hope that the audience will fall in love with its conceit, but if you find rats acting awkward at parties and horses jealously talking about a successful friend hilarious, then perhaps Animals' approach is a gamble that will pay off.
While there are some funny moments -- thanks in large part to the improvisations of its voice cast -- the show's lack of real characters and a reliance on an uninspired comedic concept will likely make it difficult for Animals to ultimately earn the devotion of audiences. Then again, like all forms of comedy, Animals' success or failure will come down to a matter of individual taste. But for this reviewer, the comedy flavor Animals is serving up is one to be avoided.
Animals season 1 continues next Friday with 'Pigeons' @11:30 pm on HBO.