Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There’s going for the jugular, and then there’s Animal Kingdom – in the opening scene of TNT’s latest series, a young man sits in a muggy living room, eyes sunken in and arms stock-still, watching a game show without really seeing a frame of it. To his right: his mother, head tipped back, slumped in her seat, dead – we realize through the eyes of paramedics who burst through the screen door – of a heroin overdose.
Animal Kingdom is an adaptation of the great, gritty Australian drama that netted Jacki Weaver an Oscar nom back in 2010 – and in that introductory scene, it proclaims to have retained its inspiration’s grim streak. The kid on the couch is Josh (Finn Cole), J for short, and his weary, hang-dog eyes tell you everything you need to know about his life up until that moment, from the childhood years spent neglected and afraid to his coming of age in a world he’s already been taught extends no helping hands.
For those opening minutes, J’s sense of resignation packs a dramatic wallop. Then the rest of the show kicks in, and the TNT of it all, why this show didn’t end up on AMC, FX or HBO, becomes more plainly stated. J reaches out to his grandmother, nicknamed Smurf and played with a delicious blend of queenly grace and wolfish sensuality by Ellen Barkin, and lets her know that he’s on his own. They’re not exactly close, but Smurf’s quick to swing by the apartment and pick him up, pulling J out of his seedy surroundings and into the sunny, California beach town of Oceanside, where she’s set up shop with four grown boys (the “animals” of the title).
All of these men, ripped and raucous figures, turn out to surf, steal, speed and screw with wild abandon, content with a hedonistic, hard-party lifestyle that Smurf is happy enough to enable – so long as she can round them up for smartly coordinated bank heists now and again. There’s a creepy, almost incestuous quality to her controlling, doting influence over the four; she proclaims to J that “there are no secrets in this family,” though one gets the sense that she’s keeping many in order to continue holding the best cards. Barkin plays up Smurf’s gristly core but, crucially, injects her with enough purring, predatory charm to entertain.
For this clan, malfeasance is a way of life, and violence is a preferred method of resolving personal issues, from conflicts with other surfers at the beach to heated blow-ups over family matters. Scott Speedman, playing adopted son Baz, is the most level-headed and reasonable of the bunch; and Shawn Hatosy, as Pope, the brother who just got out of prison after taking the fall for the rest of them, is easily its most dangerous and unhinged element. All the performances in Animal Kingdom are solid, but – Barkin aside – those are the two that stand out, Speedman’s easygoing charm working well to invest us in slightly under-explored love plotlines for Baz and Hatosy’s menacing presence doing much to set him up as an alpha predator within this den of wolves.
For all its dramatic grit, though, what sets Animal Kingdom apart from its more dour and dreary film predecessor is a bright, sun-soaked setting that recalls – more than anything else – the original Point Break. Particularly in scenes set by the family’s highly frequented pool or the nearby Pacific, Animal Kingdom emphasizes the gleeful, go-for-broke indulgence of its characters’ lifestyles, even as it spikes that sugar rush with the knowledge – and occasional intrusion of – their violent temperaments and illegal extra-curricular pursuits. Though it heads to some sinister places very early on, especially when a mid-premiere heist gone wrong leaves one of the guys sporting a nasty bullet wounds, there’s more of a souped-up, sensational vibe to this series than there ever was to the lean, mean original.
That’s not a knock – as TNT’s biggest summer offering, Animal Kingdom has a lot going for it, and its adrenaline-junkie characters benefit from not being weighed down by more dramatic darkness than they warrant. In particular, it’s a joy to watch Barkin sink her teeth into a role as juicy as Smurf, and the actress has so much fun with the larger-than-life matriarch role that it’s contagious.
If the series dives more seriously into models of modern hyper-masculinity and its characters’ conflicted sense of morality, not to mention the twisted psychologies of some of the characters (particularly the leering, loathsome Pope), it could turn out to be a brainier watch than the first three episodes indicate. But even if it doesn’t, the brawn and bravado of these opening episodes enables this Animal Kingdom to deliver a potent, promising dramatic kick already.
Marinated in its seedy, sweltering setting and fueled by its hyper-masculine antiheroes' reckless behaviors, Animal Kingdom is a welcome adrenaline rush in the typically underwhelming summer season.