'Animals': TV Review

Animals S01E01 Still - H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

Animals S01E01 Still - H 2016

Animated animals are funny — but only sometimes.

HBO's little animated project about various animals in New York City lands in a field crowded with other shows that share its comic sensibility.

Through the haze of thousands of TV series, I can vaguely remember 2013 (so many shows since then, right?), when I was a judge at the New York Television Festival. In the Independent Pilot Competition category, there was a standout little animation entry called Animals. It was the story of foul-mouthed varmints of all sorts, doing the detached, existentially plagued hipster thing in New York City.

Like The Life & Times of Tim, a show that had just come to an end on HBO, the DIY-ish animation of Animals (made to look a little more dashed-off than representative of the true talents of the animators) was just a visual front for the quick wit and potty mouths of the animal characters, voiced by creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano.

Animals is still pretty much what it was back then, although a bevy of famous comic voices (including Adam Scott, Eric Andre, Paul Scheer, Katie Aselton, Matt Walsh, Steve Zissis, Nick Kroll, Lauren Lapkus, Molly Shannon and seemingly countless others) help Matarese and Luciano with the voices.

True to its title, no human is as interesting in this series as the anthropomorphized rats, pigeons, butterflies, ducks, swans, cats and dogs. It was their humanity, or lack thereof, combined with a ton of snark that set Animals apart at the NYTVF back in 2013.

Today, there's something about Animals that still feels like a show from a few seasons ago, not something revelatory and fresh. Maybe that’s because the kind of sardonically detached, boundary-dancing comedy at the heart of the series is now the default for so many other series on Comedy Central, Adult Swim and Netflix. While there may not be another animation featuring gender-bending pigeons or uncomfortably close indoor cats who happen to be brothers, the comedic tone behind Animal's premise is everywhere these days. As is the case with a lot of animated shows based in a very alternate reality, you really have to be in the mood for Animals, a hit-or-miss series that weaves a couple of disparate stories of the animals into a half-hour set against the background of a perpetually rainy New York City.

But despite its lack of revelation, it’s a funny show and settles into its wheelhouse whenever there’s a combination of sex, swearing, disaffected voyeurism and some spoofing of bro behavior. It’s one of those shows that lead you to realize over the long term that there’s more to it in the narrative ambition, a la Netflix’s Bojack Horseman and the spot-on laconic weirdness of The Life & Times Of Tim.

Given its idiosyncratic appeal and air of datedness, it's hard to ignore the fact that the power of the Duplass Brothers (who already have Togetherness at HBO) likely helped immensely in not only landing Animals at the premium cable channel — as opposed to, say, Adult Swim — but also surely helped land all the famous voice talent. And yet, it’s creators Matarese and Luciano, who met working in advertising, who gel the best while performing together as various animals. It’s a testament to their drive and comedy chops that Animals got this far in the first place.

The hard part now will be sustaining an audience. While there are funny parts to each episode, there’s not one that slays the entire half hour, although the cat-centric episode of Animals — the third — does stand out with a series of surprisingly weird detours (more of them would be welcome).

Some of the flatness of the overall experience of Animals stems from the static sameness of the presentation. You don’t need to be reminded that in the three years since Animals entered its long development cycle, the TV landscape for scripted series has exploded. To stand out and survive now you have to be both great and lucky — being a jaded, foul-mouthed animal isn’t enough.

Creators: Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano

Executive producers: Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass