‘Animals’ Review: Clever, Crude Animated Comedy Could Be a Tough Sell to Viewers

Duplass brothers series may be too niche for TV

Ever wonder what goes on inside the mind of a dog? A rat? An insect making a nice snack out of some pubic hair? Those are just some questions HBO’s incoming animated series produced by the Duplass brothers strives to answer, in the crudest way possible.

“Animals,” created by Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese, is one of the most comprehensive takes on anthropomorphous characters yet, as it explores rats and their need to procreate, pigeons with sexuality issues and more. Presented over the course of the first season through a series of vignettes taking place in New York, the show is tied together by a rather unimportant human storyline that at least gives it a minor sense of cohesiveness.

The animation itself is pretty crude (think “Beavis and Butt-Head” or “King of the Hill”) and while it serves the overall tone and humor, that could potentially also be because the project didn’t have a buyer while Mark Duplass and the creators worked on the first five or so episodes. In fact, were it not for the brothers’ involvement, it’s doubtful some of the first season guest stars (Danny McBride, Adam Scott, Paul Scheer) would have stopped by to lend their voice talents in the first place.

The subsequent result is a weird hybrid of observational humor and social commentary. It’s easy to see how a series like this would draw critical appeal on the film festival circuit, but difficult to see how viewers will tune in without a strong word of mouth. In fact, it wasn’t until the series screened at the Sundance Festival that HBO picked it up.
Even then, this is an offering best served in small doses to really appreciate some of the nuances built into each episode.

The pilot, which hones in a rat who has never made babies and his fellow rat-buddy who considers himself an expert in the field, makes clever use of the often misunderstood creatures, while also celebrating several of their gross tendencies. When one brings a cracker he found to a party he is feted; the other whips out some paper plates to utter confusion. Meanwhile there’s a red-eyed rat with a human ear attached to his back and another one that’s hopped up on rat poison he mistook for drugs. Things don’t end well for all of the characters, but others are left alive and hopping by the episode’s end, with the feeling that we may see them again in subsequent episodes.

It’s in that cleverness that “Animals” could develop a loyal audience, but its very specific tone and alienating animation also makes it a hard sell. Luckily for those in the former camp there will be time to spread the word, as HBO brass believed enough in it to renew the show for a second season ahead of premiere. Crackers for everyone.

“Animals” premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on HBO.