'Animal Kingdom': TV Review

Courtesy of TNT
This will have to get better fast.

There's potential in TNT's new drama based on a 2010 Australian film about a crime family, but the show tries too hard to be gritty.

The hardest part of making a good cable series that might, if you get it just right, become great is trusting your audience and subverting expectations.

Animal Kingdom, the new TNT show that premieres Tuesday night but has already aired who knows how many times because TNT wanted to introduce NBA playoff fans to its overtly male point of view, does none of those things.

The pilot can't resist spelling out what it's doing even when it's pretty obvious what it's doing. That first hour also pulls its hamstring completely off the bone while trying to prove acrobatically how rough and wild and crazy and adrenalized the family at the core of the show really is. So, within an hour, Animal Kingdom messes up and then has to come back in the second episode (which TNT will air back-to-back with the pilot) and make amends; that hour needs to prove that it can do better than the pilot, that it can give you hope things will work out over time.

It fails in that task. And let's ask the most important question of our current TV universe: Who has the time to wait for greatness?

Then again, Animal Kingdom, based on the 2010 Australian film of the same name from David Michod, might not really be shooting that high. It could be, as part of TNT's aggressively darker new makeover, just trying to be coolly gritty, an hour that's entertaining and a bit edgier than a similar broadcast offering (the series doesn't hesitate to show skin, though for no other reason than to show skin and, in fairness, pretty much every male actor in the cast has his own naked butt scene; so if you're keeping score at home, there you go).

If Animal Kingdom (and really, it's very difficult to type that name without accidentally making it Animal Planet) is disappointing in its first two hours, the unfortunate part of that disappointment is that the cast is promising and Jonathan Lisco, who adapted it for television, and executive producer John Wells, who directs the pilot, have good history in Southland — not only the last best show on TNT but also the last best cop drama on TV.

Perhaps, jumping ahead with a little hope and confidence, Animal Kingdom can grow into something approaching that show.

The hard part will be making anyone care, however, since this series is about the Codys, a Southern California beach family involved in petty crime and driven by the twisted affections of the family matriarch, Janine Cody (Ellen Barkin), who is only ever called Smurf (a name that never loses its ludicrous, off-putting ring).

Since not a lot of viewers will have seen the movie and the series ends up being completely different anyway, it probably doesn't help to note that the first hour apparently has a lot of similarities to the film — namely the best scene in two full hours, which is Josh "J" Cody (Finn Cole of Peaky Blinders) passively watching TV while paramedics try to revive his mother who is dying of a heroin overdose.

After her death, J washes his lone dinner plate and utensil, then does his math homework. The inference is that he's a good kid who excels in school and has endured his screwed-up mother's addictions. He's not lost, but he might be damaged. The one thing his mother did do was shelter him from his grandmother, Smurf (see, it never sounds right), and his crazy-ass uncles and their criminal behavior. So when J has no one to call but Smurf, to say that her daughter died and he's alone, she takes him in but viewers figure out pretty quickly that J is better than her brood and might not want to become a part of it. It's a subtle inference in a loud, obvious first hour.

One reason Animal Kingdom would get you to the third episode is the work of Scott Speedman (The Captive, Felicity) as Baz, who Smurf adopted when he was 12 since his parents were horrible. Baz is the golden boy of the Codys, even though he's not really a Cody. The important thing is he's likeable, his character has dimension and you could actually root for him — things that are not true of the other Cody boys, who include eldest Pope (Shawn Hatosy of Southland), hulking middle child Craig (Ben Robson of Vikings) and youngest Deran (Jake Weary of Chicago Fire).

And while it's not out of the realm of possibility that Barkin will be the primary attraction here, early on that's not a given; her character has a faintly incestuous slant to her dealings with the boys (and she's no angel nor as loyal as she preaches), and the effect is more "eww" than intriguing. Beyond Smurf, all the female characters so far are pointless save for their ability to undress. That's not a good sign.

So if you're going to like the Codys, then Speedman's Baz is the clear favorite; if Animal Kingdom ends up working at all, it may hinge on Cole, a fine young actor who is attracted to but also slightly put off by the Cody Family Lifestyle. Struggling with that allure and disdain best serves the actor and the series; if he falls in too quickly with the Cody code of criminal activity, then he's just Jax from Sons of Anarchy, a series that echoes around inside Animal Kingdom quite a bit.

It's not clear where this series will eventually go — whether or not it will improve week to week and be worth the investment. But early on there's a decided lack of originality, and the show is trying so furiously to be gritty and important that it ends up more wearisome than entertaining. It is filled, initially, with an excessive amount of brainless macho posturing and everybody does dumb stuff for no reason except to ramp up the drama.

There's a moment in the pilot where something unexpected happens — the Cody boys snatch up a bunch of meth heads and tie them up and duct-tape them and toss them in the back of a truck, encouraging them to throw up and piss all over themselves, saying they'll be back in a day or so. Left unexplained, this might be interesting, a mysterious plot twist. But when the Cody boys come back, they say this: "Thanks for the body fluids. DNA jackpot. This should keep the crime lab busy."

Wow — and thud.

That's a show that doesn't trust its audience. That's a show that goes on to bludgeon viewers with ridiculous bad behavior from the Cody family so everyone's absolutely certain they are wild and crazy. Baz and J are characters that offer a little hope for the future; Hatosy is an actor who proved in Southland that he's got chops and hopefully will get more to do than just be the very loose screw here. Elsewhere, Animal Kingdom undercuts even that minor amount of hope by introducing a snippet of storyline with Deran that echoes one in Southland (without giving you hope that this version will pull it off) and another for Baz that might be too much, too soon.

Great shows don't have to be this eager and this sloppy and this obvious. TNT will need to make Animal Kingdom improve significantly over the next several episodes if the series wants a shot at survival.

Cast: Ellen Barkin, Scott Speedman, Shawn Hatosy, Finn Cole, Ben Robson, Jake Weary
Based on the film by: David Michod
Adapted for TV by: Jonathan Lisco
Director-executive producer: John Wells
Airs: Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (TNT)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine