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Watching Apple TV+’s recent promotion for the new animated comedy Central Park, you might have little awareness at all that the series is, on any level, a musical.
Even acknowledging how hard it is to promote musical elements in a 30-second or 60-second spot — the initial two-minute trailer at least tried — it’s still a peculiar choice because as an animated family comedy, Central Park is pleasant, amiable and sometimes funny, but probably not hugely impactful. As a musical, Central Park is something wonderful, a joyful and elating experience almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face at a moment when pure pleasure is a welcome salve.
AIR DATE May 29, 2020
I’m not in marketing, but I know which of those aspects I would want to accentuate.
The show hails from Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard with Nora Smith and Josh Gad. The focus is on the Tillerman family, who live in a caretaker’s house in the middle of Central Park. Patriarch Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.) is the actual caretaker, obsessed with the rules and regulations that he thinks allow Central Park to thrive. Wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn) dreams of doing serious investigative journalism, but she’s stuck writing puff pieces for “the No. 1 most left-on-the-subway paper in the city.” Daughter Molly (Kristen Bell) is dealing with aspects of her biracial identity through a comic series she doodles, while son Cole (Tituss Burgess) is full of love, which becomes a problem when he adopts a missing dog that happens to belong to the nefarious Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), a diminutive billionaire with designs on taking over and commercializing Central Park.
Bitsy’s scheming against the Park, abetted by her long-suffering assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs) is, through the four episodes sent to critics, the spine of the series, as Owen endeavors to keep things orderly and vibrant while Paige captures her reportorial mojo in trying to bring the evil plot to light.
The entire series is framed by Gad’s Birdie, half intrepid busker, half peeping voyeur and all Park-loving, guitar-strumming narrator.
Originally developed for Fox, Central Park has more than a passing resemblance to Bouchard’s Bob’s Burgers, which has carved out a 10-season niche as an astonishingly consistent comedy that sometimes gets lost in lists of TV’s best animated shows. Especially in the episode-opening scenes in which the Tillermans prepare for their respective days, Owen’s social anxiety is quite Bob-esque, Paige’s unselfconscious enthusiasm is Linda-esque and Cole’s hygiene-starved innocence tends toward Gene-esque.
There’s a lovably wholesome sloppiness to this close, wide-eyed, weak-jawed clan, and the humor builds as you recognize the characters and their voices. I laughed more rewatching the first couple of Central Park episodes than on my initial viewing.
Fans of Bob’s Burgers know Bouchard and company’s love for songs. The Die Hard/Working Girl musical episode, written not coincidentally by Nora Smith, is a series peak, and every episode concludes with a song over the closing credits, some written by luminaries like Fiona Apple.
Nothing in that Bob’s Burgers precedent prepares you, though, for just how good and expansive the songs in Central Park are. The musical numbers, all produced by Frank Ciampi, hail from a varied who’s who of Broadway and Broadway-adjacent composers. In the second episode, the remarkable empowerment anthem “Weirdos Make Great Superheroes” was written by Sara Bareilles. “Rats,” from the third episode, has synth-y ’80s power-ballad touches and was written, naturally enough, by Cyndi Lauper. And it isn’t even like the songs from the A-listers are outliers. Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel of Olaf’s Frozen Adventure wrote for multiple episodes; their anthem “Own This” from the premiere, bringing together the entire cast for Central Park jubilation, is a glorious earworm featuring counter-melodies and complex harmonies and I can nearly guarantee you’ll want to rewind and watch again immediately.
With so much of the cast, including guest voice Christopher Jackson, boasting Hamilton on their résumés, it’s no wonder that many of the songs have a hip-hop inflection, but just as many are Disney-inspired. They’re also amusingly wonky about New York and Central Park history, making this the rare series that might play even better if you’ve read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.
Having songs of this scope and ambition requires that you have a vocal cast capable of doing them justice, which Central Park surely does. Whether rushing through complicated rhythmic verses or letting loose on range-stretching choruses, Odom is a standout, not that anybody will be surprised. Gad’s vocal versatility isn’t a surprise either, nor are the musical chops of Burgess and Bell, though I guess I was struck by how good they sound together. Did I know Hahn had a great voice? Probably not. Am I shocked? I’m pretty confident at this point that Hahn can do anything. Once you know that the evil little old lady is voiced by Tucci, it’s impossible not to hear and it’s admirable how good he is, singing in this particular and peculiar character.
Bouchard has always made a point of “Best person for the job” vocal casting, untethered to gender or race. Having Tucci and Diggs voicing women of a certain age feels a little bit like a stunt, but the show doesn’t suffer from it and the distraction is minimal. It even adds a layer of irony when the easily overlooked Bitsy sings, “I’m constantly ignored. No one sees my genius / I’m constantly ignored. Must I grow a penis?”
Perhaps if Molly’s biracial identity were an afterthought for the character, I wouldn’t balk at Bell’s casting. However, Molly spends the series dwelling on her difficulties fitting in and the comic book incarnation of herself that she’s drawing uses her unruly hair as a superpower and differentiator. Under those circumstances, it’s hard not to feel this is an ill-considered casting choice — surely nothing would be lost by casting an Amandla Stenberg or Zendaya in the role.
This feels particularly relevant with this week’s reminder of how often Central Park has become a politicized and racialized space, the ultimate unease melting pot location in a city that has always been an unease melting pot. Instead, Central Park prefers to view its location as an uncomplicated oasis, and I think Bouchard and company are capable of something more nuanced.
Maybe that depth will come in future episodes? After watching four, though, I’m ready for a full-season binge and for a soundtrack. Especially for the soundtrack. Because no matter what Apple TV+ is trying to tell people, Central Park is a musical and it’s a heck of a musical.
Voices: Leslie Odom Jr., Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Tituss Burgess, Josh Gad, Daveed Diggs, Stanley Tucci
Creators: Loren Bouchard, Nora Smith and Josh Gad
Premieres: Friday (Apple TV+)
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