The adaptation trend continues with TNT’s ANIMAL KINGDOM, an adaptation of the 2010 Australian thriller of the same name. TNT’s crime syndicate is set smartly in Oceanside, California and helmed by John Wells Productions, (of Shameless and The West Wing fame). The acerbic dialogue and singularity of tone — one that is brutal and hopeful in the same breath — ring true of much of John Wells Productions’ other Television work.
In one of the cleanest and most layered openings I’ve seen on TV in some time, Animal Kingdom starts off with Josh (J) sitting dejectedly on the couch next to his mother Julia — who’s dead after O.D.’ing on heroin. He calls his grandmother, who he hasn’t seen in 11 years, who comes and brings J to stay with her. But for J it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, because his grandmother and wild pack of uncles are all hardened criminals. Once J’s settled in, Smurf (his grandmother) and his uncles Baz, Craig, and Deran argue in the garage about whether or not taking him in is a good idea. The boys will start a mysterious big job tomorrow, and they can’t afford any mistakes. Smurf puts her foot down, giving the boys the ultimatum to suss J. out the next day, because she says he’s “in” until they can prove otherwise.
J’s two uncles Deran and Craig take him surfing, which almost landed this pilot in A territory alone for me, because you can put a surf montage in the middle of literally anything and it would become my favorite movie/TV show/etc. ever. Real talk: you are talking to someone who saw Blue Crush in theaters. Twice. Anyway, ugh, back to all this story I have to wait out before I can watch people surfing again, J watches his brothers scare off a G-wagon full of rich boys, who come back for more trouble in the parking lot later. Craig makes J pull a gun on them to scare them off. It works like a charm, but this is J’s first taste of earning his keep in his new home, and it makes him downright uncomfortable. Later, at a raucos house party, J’s uncles make him jump off the roof into the pool below, while Smurf cheers him on from below. J’s still hesitant so wildman Craig grabs J and jumps in, taking J with him. We see Smurf fawn over her granddaughter Lena, Baz’s little girl, and it’s clear that Smurf is used to her word being law around here.
The next morning, J’s surprised by a creepy guy who appears in his room: this is his uncle Andrew, aka Pope, and he’s home on parole. J tries to make a quick exit, saying he’s going to his girlfriend’s, but Pope offers to drive him so they can “catch up.” But J declines and the boys stay behind to argue. Turns out J’s moved into Pope’s room. Smurf tells Pope he can’t stay there, they can’t afford to have parole officers running up in there all the time. Pope says he’ll just stay at his place, but his brothers have bad news about that too — they had to sell it. As J bikes away from the house, a cop cruiser crawls by and clocks him; this is definitely a destination the cops know well. Turns out J wasn’t lying about having a girlfriend, her name is Nicky and their relationship seems passionate and sweet.
Shit gets pretty awkward at Julia’s funeral. Her coffin divides her two families down the middle: chosen family on one side, blood family (including J) on the other. One of his neighbors tries to warn J to stay away from the family, it’s what Julia would have wanted, but J tries to keep the peace and his uncles ridicule the neighbor into leaving. Pope has a creepy moment with J, but J brushes it off. Later, Craig tells Pope they need him to steal a car for their next bank robbery. The uncles take J and Nicky out for dinner and Baz corners J in the bathroom and asks if Pope’s given him any trouble. Later, Pope finds J and Nicky passed out on the couch and gently picks Nicky up and carries her to bed. J catches him. Pope simply says Nicky’s beautiful and flees. The next morning, Pope, who’s showing more and more boundary issues, interrupts J’s shower to summon him for help with stealing a car. Pope violently jumps a couple of guys and steals their car while J looks on, more than a little shook up.
Back at home, in perhaps the most compelling scene in the pilot, Pope faces off with Smurf in a creepy vaguely Oedipal way. J defends her, which turns Pope’s anger on him. This scene is important because we see that Pope is the one person unafraid to challenge Smurf’s authority. Meanwhile, Baz, Deran and Craig are on a job, doing a smash-and-grab at a jewelry store that they think has no security on call — but they were wrong. The job goes bad — very bad. The cops open fire and Baz gets hit. J goes through old photos and finds one of his dad Gary, which gives him an idea. He calls the last phone number he has for him, but someone else answers who has no idea where Gary is. J goes back to his old apartment to meet the drug dealer trying to shake him down for his mom’s debts. Emboldened by his time with his uncles, he beats the dealer up and steals his gun. He then bikes to the ocean where he tosses his mom’s cell phone in the water. He returns to the house and a flurry of strange activity: Craig and Pope are cauterizing Baz’s bullet wound while Smurf comforts a crying Deran on her lap like a baby. At the end of the pilot, Pope finds J and tosses him a fancy watch, telling him to give it to Nicky, because girls like shiny things.
“We Don’t Hurt People” opens on another rowdy house party around the pool. The roughhousing gets a little too rough between Craig and Pope and Craig accidentally busts Poop’s nose. The boys are all playing a drinking game and J’s losing badly. He’s got a long way to go before keeping up with his uncles’ liquor tolerance. Inside, in maybe one of her most fucked-up matriarch moves yet, Smurf asks Nicky which brother she likes best besides J. She says Baz is pretty cool. You know who’s not cool at all is J, though, who’s so drunk he throws up in a trash can.
Things go from bad to worse at the Cody house; Baz’s girlfriend Catherine tells him the security guard they shot during their botched robbery died, and that he wasn’t a security guard, he was a real cop. Craig, despite his gunshot wound, has sex with a girl who turns out to be his oxy hookup, and tries to get her to score him more pills. After a brief back and forth, she relents. Smurf wakes J up out of his drunken stupor for a heart to heart. She says he’s in this family now so there are secrets that he’ll have to keep — they don’t hurt people, but are human and sometimes a rule gets broken. She tells J to find Deran and bring him home. J goes to the beach to find Deran in the bathroom — with a guy. Deran tries to pass it off as though he was beating the guy up the whole time, but J’s freaked out and refuses Deran’s ride home, biking off into the hills. Just when he thinks he’s lost him, the big green Jeep re-appears. Deran’s not playing anymore; he’s cornered and afraid and will do anything to protect his secret, even if that means running J down. He runs J off the road and into a fence before leaving him there to bike home himself.
Smurf knows about the dead cop now and she’s pissed. She orders the boys to erase all traces of the crime and orders J to help strip the car to remove all DNA from it. In the garage, J confides in Baz that he lied to Smurf to cover for Pope when she asked if anyone saw them steal the car. He’s afraid Pope’s going to do something to the witness they beat up together. Baz says J should always come to him first and, in turn, confronts Pope about lying to Smurf. Pope’s still convinced they can’t trust J. Baz and Smurf aren’t sure he’s sleeping. Pope’s going off the rails, and fast.
Speaking of going off the rails, it looks like Craig’s got himself quite the hillbilly heroin addiction. He ducks aside to secretly pop a couple pills when he’s stripping the van with Deran, who’s talking about feeling sick of a crime family that’s both broke and broken, and maybe going off on their own together. J returns from a shower to find his room completely tossed. Pope’s creeping in the corner, demanding the watch he gave J back. He’s already given it to Nicky, but Pope tells him to get it back. He insists on driving both kids to school, and Nicky rides shotgun. He “jokes” about Nicky robbing a bank to get the cash she needs for a family vacation. He notices her watch, which she dreamily says J gave her and she’s never taking off.
Smurf and Baz go to an incinerating plant to destroy the watches from the jewelry heist. Smurf tells Baz that Pope tossed J’s room. Baz brings up the idea of getting Pope back on some sort of meds, but Smurf says that will never happen. Later, Smurf goes to a storage unit alone and unloads the watches in a safe. Something else was in the box she gave Baz to burn. Meanwhile, Pope’s Tour of Crazy continues and he pops in to see Catherine and Baz’s little girl Lena. Apparently Pope and Catherine slept together once and Baz still doesn’t know.
At school, we see that J is more than an “okay” student; he’s whip-smart, his science teacher Lexa notices this, and she tells him if there’s anything she can do to help him maintain his good academic record through his move he can tell her. He also says to tell Nicky to do her own homework. I can’t tell what J’s teacher’s motives are in this exchange; she’s vaguely flirty with him, and he does not reciprocate, which makes me wonder is she really flirting with him? Or just buttering him up to stay on the good side of the Codys, whom she knows he now lives with?
Smurf breaks a heel on her shoe and scrapes up her hand and knocks on a stranger’s door, feigning a fall. She pretends to be an old neighbor he’s embarrassed not to recognize and asks to use the bathroom, where she searches the medicine cabinet for pills. In a cool trick, we pop back to a flash of childhood Smurf doing the same thing — and passing a fistful of pills to her mother. Meanwhile, Craig’s gunshot wound is getting worse. He shows it to Deran who says it might be Mexico time. They decide to burn the car, which will take three days, enough time to get to Mexico to see a doctor.
Baz goes into a trailer, drops off some cat food, and holds a gun to a mysterious man’s head. Craig and Deran set the car on fire and J rolls up in time to watch it burn. Later, at the house, Smurf tells Baz there’s now a reward out for information about who killed the cop. Baz says they’re broke; they have nothing. Smurf says they all need to lay low and she can take care of the other boys. Nobody knows where Craig is and they figure he’s just off doing drugs. Smurf crushes up pills and sprinkles them onto Pope’s food. It turns out the meds she stole today belonged to Pope’s old shrink and she’s dosing him to keep him from snapping out completely. Smurf reminisces with Baz about when she first took him in and how he used to steal food because he came from such a bad home he was afraid. This is the first time we realize that Smurf is not Baz’s real mother. Baz goes home and reconciles with Catherine, promising her he won’t go down for the robbery or the cop’s death, because everything is all cleaned up.
Guys, Craig is really a loose cannon and not in the hot Bush-cover-band kind of way. He does a line of coke and then cauterizes his own gunshot wound with a blowtorch. Speaking of loose cannons, back at Chez Cody, Smurf finds Pope standing naked out by the pool. She’s about to go to him when she hears screams from the garage — it’s Craig, who’s sent himself into shock. Baz loads him into the car and takes him to a Mexican doctor. The doctors take Craig back into a crude OR and Baz watches from the doorway, helpless. He goes outside and meets a pretty girl who clearly recognizes him. They embrace and kiss passionately. Does Baz lead a double life and is one of those lives south of the border? We’ll have to tune in next week to find out.
I’m coming into this experience with Animal Kingdom knowing nothing about the pre-existing intellectual property (it was originally an Australian movie franchise) so I can’t pretend to have any contextual frame of reference for this 2-hour premiere, but with that caveat aside, I thoroughly enjoyed myself overall. What gives the show staying power is the complexity of its characters and the level of technique in the pilot script. Starting from the opening, every scene in the pilot moves the story forward while revealing character simultaneously. I’m still nerding out so hard over that opening I think because of how much information they get across to us in the first 60 seconds with almost no dialogue. J watches TV next to his dead mother on the couch, seemingly apathetic and detached, but also numb. He’s the only child of an addict, which means expectations are a luxury he doesn’t afford himself anymore. Ellen Barkin’s Smurf, who I’m definitely nicknaming “Everybody’s Jocasta,” may look like a masterful SoCal matriarch who rules with an iron fist, but in that quickie flashback in the bathroom we see that she, like most criminals, started out a victim once too. The scene in which we find out she’s not Baz’s biological mother is one of the most fascinating seeds planted in this 2-hour premiere, because I of course consequently wonder if any of the kids are hers, and what this could mean for J. The moments of reveal for Craig and especially Deran are satisfying as well (though I wish they’d come sooner, because some white dudes all look alike to me and unfortunately for the first half an hour at least, Deran and Craig were two of them) and Pope feels three-dimensionally creepy, which is a better fit for this show and a refreshing change from a total mustache-twirler. Animal Kingdom successfully set up a unique, gritty world I want to know more about where everyone is culpable and characters who are just the right mixture, for me, of repulsive and relatable. I won’t be reviewing future episodes, but I’ll definitely keep watching.
Ellen is a writer mostly because she can’t be a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Ellen Duffy | Contributor