Animated family comedies (not necessarily always made for the entire family) are so pervasive that it’s hard to find a corner of the genre that hasn’t been doodled to death. But with a very specific geographical and economic focus, J.G. Quintel’s new HBO Max comedy Close Enough manages to be both completely familiar and yet slightly distinctive.
Does it fully justify its necessity in an already crowded animation landscape? Not quite, but, um, close enough.
Close Enough, which Quintel developed with Sean Szeles, Matt Price and Calvin Wong, is the story of Josh (Quintel) and Emily (Gabrielle Walsh) Ramirez, a couple in their early 30s living in the Los Feliz (or thereabouts) neighborhood of Los Angeles with their five-year-old daughter, Candice (Jessica DiCicco). Josh is an aspiring video game developer working at a Best Buy clone and Emily does something confusing with a food corporation, but they don’t have enough money to afford to live alone, so their cramped apartment also includes Alex (Jason Mantzoukas) and Bridgette (Kimiko Glenn), a divorced junior college professor and social media influencer, respectively. Their landlord is Pearle (Danielle Brooks), a retired LAPD detective living with her adopted son, Randy (James Adomian).
Originally developed for TBS, but probably boasting enough language and sexual situations to be better suited for streaming, Close Enough settles very quickly into an easy and comfortable structure. HBO Max sent critics eight episodes, but seven of them are unconnected pairings of two 11-minute installments — the same as Quintel’s Cartoon Network favorite Regular Show.
Each episode begins with a grounded and simple premise, usually rooted in financial anxiety or anxiety about parenthood: Emily and Josh have to get art supplies to help Candice with homework. Josh contemplates a vasectomy. Emily is prescribed a “stress-free day” after a freakout about mounting debt. In the space of one or two minutes, every seemingly mundane situation escalates wildly and whimsically: A night club turns out to be a Logan’s Run parody killing anybody over 30. There’s a mob-driven conspiracy involving ham. Robots run amuck. A character becomes trapped in an existential nightmare inspired by broad network sitcoms. And then everything returns to normal, starting the cycle again.
It’s a good blend of normcore — shades of Steve Dildarian’s The Life & Times of Tim, a show I still passionately miss — and Justin Roiland-style outlandishness that I actually felt worked better in the lone episode with a single 22-minute plot than in the tighter Cartoon Network/Quibi-esque briefs. The longer running time helped that episode accentuate and flesh out each side of the story, capturing Quintel in an artistic moment between the anthropomorphized lunacy of Regular Show and a maturity neither he nor his characters seem completely ready for.
Because shows like Rick & Morty and too many Adult Swim contemporaries to count have already proven how well animation can handle an intellectually high-wire concept, taking a bit and sticking with it to absurdist lengths, I honestly liked Close Enough most when it was more realistic. I loved the specificity of the jokes about L.A. real estate, the rare visual treatment of the city’s neighborhoods and the casual banalities of the instigating drama.
The inevitable push into extremes usually left me waiting for that one extra beat that would take the gags from amusingly audacious to wholly committed. Maybe that’s why I smiled consistently through Close Enough, but I rarely laughed. And when I laughed, it tended to be at reliable, classic animation punchlines, like the fiery explosions stemming from objects that aren’t usually flammable. If people ever stopped watching boulders or signs burst into flames, Wile E. Coyote and the whole Warner Brothers Animation back catalogue buttressing HBO Max’s library would go out of business.
Both tonal sides of Close Enough are boosted by strong and complementary vocal work from most of the core cast, especially Mantzoukas, who has reached a point at which I start laughing at his inevitably off-kilter voiceover work before he’s finished delivering a sentence. The characters are simple-yet-expressive and the initial circumstances are relatable whether you’re trying to raise a child on a candy-free diet or staring down middle-age and lamenting the demise of your youth.
I would hope future seasons do better by Pearle, the series’ only Black character of note, because her obsession with old cold cases is a lot more interesting than several other things to which Close Enough dedicates real time. I’d extend that hope to the series’ approach to ethnicity — it’s L.A. as a melting pot in which race is present, but never explicitly relevant — which is progressive in a superficial sense, but strips away a level of detail from characters.
Without loving Close Enough, I found the show close enough to effective that the eight episodes I watched went by quickly. I’ll be curious to see how the series and Quintel continue to evolve and mature.
Voices: J. G. Quintel, Gabrielle Walsh, Jason Mantzoukas, Kimiko Glenn, Jessica DiCicco, James Adomian, Danielle Brooks
Creator: J.G. Quintel
Premieres Thursday, July 9 on HBO Max.