“Animal Kingdom” is an odd beast. Adapted from the arresting 2010 Australian thriller, this TNT offering contains glimpses of the gritty, compelling series it could be, but judged on its first three episodes, this tale of a dysfunctional Southern California crime family is more bark than bite.
Highlighted by a deliciously sleazy turn from Ellen Barkin, “Animal Kingdom” slowly finds its footing, but it remains to be seen whether the characters’ low-life machinations will produce sufficient drama to justify audiences’ patience.
Kicking off June 14 with a two-hour premiere, the series begins as writer-director David Michôd’s film did. Moody teen J (Finn Cole) has just lost his junkie mom to an overdose, prompting him to seek out his grandmother Smurf Cody (Barkin), who invites him to enjoy his extended family’s lavish lifestyle. (She thinks nothing of giving J a fancy smartphone as a gift, and she always has extravagant spreads ready when he’s hungry.)
J’s mother had wanted to keep him away from Smurf, and soon we see why: She runs a criminal organization alongside her adult sons Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary) and her adopted son Baz (Scott Speedman), who serves as her second-in-command. Sensitive, loyal Baz is clearly the most levelheaded of Smurf’s children, but the family’s balance of power is threatened by the return of Smurf’s other son, Pope (Shawn Hatosy), a brooding, unhinged felon who’s just been released from prison.
Developed for television by Jonathan Lisco (“Halt and Catch Fire”) and executive produced by John Wells, who directed the first two episodes, “Animal Kingdom” works hard to establish the incestuous, lurid atmosphere around the Cody clan — often too hard. Even if you haven’t seen Michôd’s film, the TNT series makes it obvious early on that not all is right with this family.
Smurf’s biological children share an unsettling intimacy with their mother — kisses on the lips and snuggles in bed — while Smurf flaunts an overtly sexual demeanor around the house, flashing ample cleavage and questioning her grandson about whether his girlfriend (Molly Gordon) is satisfying him sexually.
In limited doses, the show’s SoCal sliminess can be seductive, especially in regards to Barkin’s reptilian performance. Jacki Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for the role, and Barkin is no less expert playing a woman who will do anything to control those who venture into her kingdom — including Baz’s baby mama Catherine (Daniella Alonso), who resents Smurf’s growing interest in their impressionable four-year-old daughter. Smurf is a mama lion fiercely protecting her cubs, and Barkin gives her a trashy allure that belies some serious ferociousness underneath.
But the series on the whole lacks the focused fieriness Barkin brings to her character. “Animal Kingdom” has all the obligatory plot busyness necessary to drive the show forward and encourage viewers to check in from week to week. But thus far, the furious churning of storylines yields only moderate rewards. Turning Michôd’s two-hour film into 10 hour-long episodes, Lisco has expanded the movie’s scope to allow for more interpersonal dynamics and melodramatic family intrigue. One of the central characters has a secret lover in Mexico, while another is hiding his homosexuality, afraid of reprisals from his relatives. Plus, a daring heist goes wrong, forcing Smurf and her boys to cover their tracks, which only stirs resentment within the family, possibly dividing the clan into cliques.
What consistently hampers “Animal Kingdom” is that Lisco and his team have overinvested in their show’s dog-eat-dog edginess, failing up to this point to truly shock us with the Cody family’s supposedly depraved self-interest. At a time when television dramas are pushing the envelope in terms of moral nuance and character likability, the relatively mild transgressions depicted in “Animal Kingdom” pale in comparison.
That said, some of Barkin’s costars shine. Speedman earns empathy as the honorable Baz, who wants to believe he’s still one of the good guys. Hatosy channels the same disconcerting stillness that Ben Mendelsohn exuded as Pope in the Australian original. But Cole may be the cast member most worth monitoring.
J starts out as a grieving, sheltered young man who can’t quite grasp what his family does to survive. Three episodes in, he’s proved himself a quick study, and Cole’s enigmatic eyes make you wonder what lessons he’s silently absorbing from these animals.