Animals’ initial two episodes first screened publicly at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, which is known for independent cinema, and now, independent TV. The show completely bypassed the development process, and came to Sundance with the first season largely already made. Mark Duplass, no stranger to Sundance as a filmmaker, and his Duplass Brothers TV production company were already attached, and had just premiered Togetherness on HBO. Animals struck a chord with the cable network, which not only picked up the first season, but ordered a second one as well. Animals is HBO’s first foray into animation since it cancelled The Life And Times Of Tim. The animation medium is perhaps one of the reasons Animals feels entirely different from anything else on HBO, but it’s not the only reason. Animals is an odd duck (pun intended), a show that will surely be polarizing. It would fit right in on something like Adult Swim or Comedy Central, but perhaps HBO has decided it’s best to become a bit weird.
Each show shifts its focus from an above-ground scenario to the animals that dwell in New York City, where these oft-ignored beasts act out bizarre social situations: A shy rat doesn’t want to attend a party because he’s hasn’t “made babies” like everyone else; a pigeon takes steroids in order to win a flying contest against a fellow jackass bird; two dogs discuss whether their owners dating means that they are now dating. These anthropomorphized characters have personal issues, filtered through the lens of animals.
Two characters in each episode are voiced by show creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, who met while working at an ad production company and came up with the idea for the show while riffing on what pigeons might talk about. In the first episode, Phil is that shy rat who would rather be alone than at the party, while Mike is in the bathroom making babies like he should. They’re surrounded by a host of comedy guest stars of a certain stripe. Adam Scott is a Canadian Goose who fakes being a swan, who falls for a true swan (Molly Shannon), sex scene included. Wanda Sykes is a horse, Aziz Ansari is a racist dog, Jason Mantzoukas is a ladies’-man rat. A human storyline, beginning with the death of a woman during sex, runs in pieces throughout, more as a way to set the tone of the series and less a story of its own.
The animation is by Starburns Industries, the firm co-run by Dan Harmon and responsible for Harmon’s Rick and Morty, as well as the Oscar-nominated Anomalisa. Its grey tones and muted colors mirror the dreariness of the New York City setting—a reflection in the way that we live above ground and the turf of the animals that live below it.
Animals is all about the concept, so it’s not just the brand of humor that can be off-putting for those not attuned to its off-kilter beats, or really attractive to some people for the same reasons. In second episode “Pigeons,” a golf ball lands in the nest of a male pigeon who believes it’s an egg and that he’s become a mother, leading to a relationship with another male pigeon and a possible gender transition. Do these high concepts always work? Not really, but sometimes they’re quite funny. But like any show that is heavy on concept, that can wear thin. After watching five straight episodes of the series, the idea that animals could be sexual deviants or just as intensely weird as humans can feel like shtick. Gimmick or not, it will certainly make you look at the cat differently.