Five episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
HBO’s Animals wears its twin inspirations on its sleeve – in five episodes, the New York-set series often reflects both the existential ennui of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman and the urban absurdity of that hallowed Internet celebrity known to all as Pizza Rat. With the former’s anthropomorphic setup and the latter’s scrappy, go-for-broke spirit, the series is a lightweight sort of lark, filled with little observations and quirky, dialogue-driven comedy. It’s also one of the strangest shows HBO has aired in some time.
Focusing on a menagerie of inner-city critters suffering from decidedly human afflictions, the series (from Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, and produced by the Duplass brothers of Togetherness fame) has one, major hook: the idea that, in their daily struggles to survive everything from being poisoned to embarrassing themselves in social settings, the animals of the title are really just quintessential New Yorkers.
That’s a weirdly specific foundation, but Animals occupies its niche in ways both predictable and peculiar. In one scene, two horses pulling buggies around Central Park stop to complain about footwear (Horse 1: “Metal on concrete. Yeah, that’s a comfortable combo. Nailed it.” Horse 2: “Literally! Into our hooves!”). In another, two bedbugs find themselves in a sleazy guy’s crotch area and contemplate the nature of their own existence, their introspection resulting in no small amount of dismay, before simply shrugging it off and chowing down.
Unlike BoJack, Animals‘ melancholy is typically restricted to a string of punchlines, some of which pile up more effectively than others. The show unfolds as a connected series of vignettes – one episode charts one rat’s struggle to “make babies” (the species’ equivalent of punching one’s V-card) at a subterranean party (emceed by DJ Lab Rat, natch), while another installment charts how two father pigeons turn a race to the Statue of Liberty (or “that green lady with the ice cream cone,” as they put it) into a defining test of their masculinity and virility (anyone who’s ever witnessed dads get in each other’s faces at Johnny’s baseball game will relate).
The undercurrents, however, remain the same. Animals aims for a shaggy, scraggly brand of comedy, and its episodes are all amusingly constructed around how the animals are influenced and in many cases tainted by their human-heavy surroundings, their specific neuroses all reflecting unwieldy participation in a world that wasn’t built with them in mind. Social anxieties, rigid family structures, heteronormative patriarchy, depression, and feelings of purposelessness all impact these little critters, and (especially given the inconsequential yet oft-revisited human B-plot, told in silence, about a bunch of shady, degenerate characters doing shady, degenerate things) there’s very much a sense that human nature is responsible for many of the issues the series’ furry and feathery denizens run up against.
Animals is patently not for everyone. The animation style is scruffy and sparse, which adds to the sense of inner-city monotony but is sometimes aggravating to watch, especially when none of the characters’ mouths move in time to the dialogue. It gives the whole thing a DIY vibe that doesn’t always avoid distracting from the dialogue.
Moreover, much of the humor is circumstantial and sometimes bizarrely narrow, with abundant movie references (there’s a great 2001: A Space Odyssey shout-out) and entire conversations revolving about whether a rat would take the Metro North or Amtrak to get upstate (this burning question ultimately goes unanswered). Disappointingly, though, other segments coast by on boring “but they’re animals” jokes, hoping the intrinsic ridiculousness of watching a pigeon husband-wife duo have a door-slamming domestic dispute will be enough to cover up the lack of intelligence or insight present in the show’s staging of said segment. It’s fairly obvious on screen when Matarese and Luciano hit a creative dead end and try in vain to work around it.
But if watching hipster versions of New York critters struggle through social interactions, constantly fall back on their narcissistic tendencies, question their sexuality and gender, and generally stumble around like lost souls sounds like your cup of tea, Animals occasionally mines that setup for comic gold. Particularly with the who’s-who voice cast of celebs (including Cobie Smulders, Aziz Ansari, Ellie Kemper, Nick Kroll, Molly Shannon, Adam Scott, Jessica Chastain, and both Duplass brothers), the series unfurls as a fun little time-killer that (in what may be its biggest triumph) manages to make audiences feel right at home in the creatures’ assorted dwellings.
It doesn’t seem all that interested in reaching BoJack Horseman levels of profundity or depth, instead opting for predictable premises and easy, pun-heavy punchlines – but it’s hard to fault the series for not wanting to skew too similar to one it will already be linked to. Ultimately, Animals is content to carve out its own, weird little niche on HBO, presenting itself as an amiable and ambling amusement that – if nothing else – should be commended for somehow turning a scene with the line “Are you on bird control?” into a quietly moving depiction of lonely hearts yearning for connection.
An amiable and ambling amusement but rarely much more than that, Animals is most notable for how weirdly committed it is to furthering a sense of inner-city ennui.