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You’ve seen Fox’s Animal Control before, even if you can’t possibly have seen Fox’s Animal Control before because it’s a brand-new series. From its opening seconds, the comedy feels familiar in everything from its character types to its interpersonal dynamics to the rhythms of its predictable punchlines.
This is not necessarily a complaint. Sitcoms often thrive on the reliability of a well-worn formula, and in that regard, Animal Control knows how to deliver exactly what’s expected of it. What it hasn’t figured out, at least in the first three half-hours sent to critics, is how to deliver the extra bit of zing that might distinguish it from all the other shows serving up variations of the same thing.
Cast: Joel McHale, Michael Rowland, Ravi Patel, Vella Lovell, Grace Palmer
Creators: Bob Fisher, Rob Greenberg, Dan Sterling
Its premise is straightforward; think Brooklyn Nine-Nine if the characters were policing creatures and not other humans. Joel McHale headlines the cast as Frank, an employee of Seattle’s animal control department who is perhaps best described as a Joel McHale type — smug, sarcastic, too smart for his own good but not quite as smart as he believes. In the very first scene of the premiere, he picks up his new partner, Fred (Michael Rowland), an ex-pro snowboarder whose cheerful declaration that “I’m gonna win you over, bro!” marks him as Frank’s polar opposite. And so begins a classic gleeful-grumpy dynamic a la Ron and Leslie from Parks and Recreation, J.D. and Dr. Cox from Scrubs and even Jimmy and Paul in last month’s Shrinking.
Fred and Frank’s colleagues include harried family man Amit (Ravi Patel) and flaky party girl Victoria (Grace Palmer), partners who get along swimmingly despite their radically divergent lifestyles; their sweet but ineffectual boss Emily (Vella Lovell, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend); uptight office manager Dolores (Kelli Ogmundson); rival precinct head Templeton (Gerry Dee); and Dr. Summers (Alvina August), who’s most often referred to simply as “Hot Vet.” The in-jokes, grudges and pranks that populate any office comedy ensue, along with case-of-the-week animal adventures like a battle against a pack of violently drugged-up bunnies.
Animal Control runs with the smoothness of a more established show, in contrast to the awkwardness that plagues so many other fledgling comedies. It knows who these characters are and meticulously lays the groundwork for what their arcs are going to be — including sprinkling in seeds of backstory that could yield seasons of plot to come, like Frank’s previous stint as a police officer kicked off the force for blowing the whistle. The jokes it spins from them range from amusing to inoffensive, with few that land as downright painful or grating. And it understands very well that sometimes the best punchline isn’t some overwritten bit but the simple sight of a CG kangaroo punching a guy in the balls.
It’s just not that interesting, or at least this critic didn’t find it to be so. Animal Control is competent but not spirited, despite a relatively novel premise that allows as a matter of course for the majestic sight of a cougar in repose or the slapstick one of ostriches chasing after a terrified and confused man. The series does not seem to have anything in particular to say about the workplace it’s depicting or the people within it, beyond a faint acknowledgement that animals sure are wacky. Its humor is pitched right down the middle, with few attempts to push the boundaries toward outrageousness or nastiness or pure goofiness.
There’s no single personality big enough to pop off the screen, and no zingers sharp enough to get quoted or memed into the cultural consciousness. (Animal Control could’ve sorely used a character like Abbott Elementary‘s Ava to steal scenes and sow chaos.) Nor does the show benefit from super strong chemistry, though all the characters seem to get along well enough. Even the will-they-won’t-they set up in the first handful of episodes lands as more obligatory than organic. While Fred and Emily say all the right things about how attractive they find each other, the dearth of sparks between Rowland and Lovell tell another story.
Your mileage may vary, of course. Maybe you’re a bigger fan of McHale’s signature smarm than I am. Perhaps you’ll relate more than I do to Amit’s subplots about the absurdities of parenting, like an episode-one gag in which he sings a song about poop on the phone with his kid — only for the entire office to chime in, because they’ve heard him sing that exact song so many damn times. Possibly Animal Control‘s half-hearted silliness, like a slow-mo shot of the gang in riot gear armed with carrots instead of weapons, hits your personal spot for comedy comfort food.
After a while, though, Animal Control‘s even-keeled vibe started to register to me almost as a weakness, rather than a strength. Were the series more uneven and unruly, it might be easier to see where it could grow into something weirder or more ambitious or more heartfelt — more special, to put it bluntly. And in fairness, it might still; three early episodes can’t determine the course of an entire series, and very good series have grown out of less auspicious beginnings. But for the moment, Animal Control is, ironically, all too tame.
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