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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Central Park hits some stellar high notes, but isn't a showstopper just yet

Illustration for article titled iCentral Park /ihits some stellar high notes, but isnt a showstopper just yet
Image: Apple TV+
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Though past Loren Bouchard projects Home Movies and Bob’s Burgers harbor few similarities (beyond H. Jon Benjamin’s strong presence in each, that is), both animated comedies can boast of stellar musical moments that strayed from their typical narration style. Bouchard’s latest venture, Central Park, stretches those once-occasional happenings into a brassy musical series with the help of his co-creators, fellow Bob’s Burgers producer Nora Smith and Broadway veteran Josh Gad. When you consider Apple TV+’s current slate of original programming—a collection seemingly lacking flagship potential six months after the platform’s launch—a series like this seems poised for success. After all, it has a lot going for it: an animation style identical to one of its beloved predecessors, thoroughly catchy musical numbers, a star-studded cast, and a proven audience for stories about relentlessly passionate municipal workers in deceptively menial jobs.

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Central Park, however, is an ambitious endeavor that is both very pleasant and and still finding its equilibrium within its first four episodes. The series benefits largely from a handful of key voice performances and sharply executed musical numbers, which have a way of overshadowing much of the rest of the story rather early in the series. Adopting the structure of a full-length stage musical over the course of a season proves to be a challenge: Because the initial episodes presumably set up a much larger encounter that will occur later in the story, this setup period can feel especially slow in parts, or even unnecessary. But the moments that do work are tremendous enough to render the experience enjoyable and serve as a launching pad for a stronger result somewhere down the line.

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We first meet Birdie (Josh Gad), a jovial, violin-playing busker who doubles as Central Park’s semi-omniscient narrator. He introduces the Tillerman family, who reside in the park’s Evendell Castle. Patriarch Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.) is the spirited manager of the park green, husband to determined journalist Paige (Kathryn Hahn), and father to young comic book creator Molly (Kristen Bell) and Cole (Tituss Burgess), a gentle ally to the city’s animal residents. Through a chance encounter Owen meets his nemesis: a posh, elderly entrepreneur named Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), who dreams of leveling Central Park to make way for condominiums. Helen (Daveed Diggs), Bitsy’s quietly scheming assistant, is there to aid her attempt to take over the park in between her own dreams of one day inheriting her wealth. It’s a battle between private ownership and public consumption, punctuated by the occasional earworm of a tune.

Central Park’s greatest asset is clearly its Broadway-grade music, which is to be expected with a cast stacked with vocal giants. As our guide, Birdie opens the series with your classic, bold overture as he literally sings the park’s praises, marveling at the inherent magic of a place that most locals apparently take for granted. As the performer tasked with setting the overall mood for the series, Gad exudes the perfect level of energy and wonder, reminiscent of his work in The Book Of Mormon and Frozen. To that same effect, Burgess, Bell, and Odom Jr. inject a level of authenticity and polish to their musical moments that sets Central Park so far apart from what we’ve seen from a Bouchard production thus far, music-wise. And with intermittent help from Broadway pillars like Sara Bareilles and Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson, rousing showstoppers like “Weirdos Make Great Superheroes” and “Do It While You Can”absolutely soar.

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Josh Gad is Birdie in Central Park
Josh Gad is Birdie in Central Park
Image: Apple TV+

The invigorating nature of said music makes most of the show’s non-melodious delivery seem a little stilted in comparison. The charm that imbues Bob’s Burgers and Home Movies largely stems from the natural chemistry of ensembles that ooze familiarity. Central Park’s cast, despite unquestionable talent, is still settling into their individual roles as well as working with each other, so there isn’t as much organically snappy back-and-forth to enjoy just yet. In addition, Birdie is often deployed to stoke the story’s more dramatic moments in ways that are not wholly necessary, rendering him more a mildly obstructive crutch than a trusty theater device or a source of new information. That’s not to say that Gad’s Birdie is useless, but better suited as another functioning character with motivations beyond rehashing scene elements. And other players have yet to showcase their full potential, especially in the cases of Diggs and Burgess, who are somewhat muted and have more to give than the few key moments they’re granted (which, by the way, are still pretty great).

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Just as it would be difficult to fully assess a play after only half of Act One, so would determining whether or not a strict stage musical format works for Central Park after only four episodes. The moments that fall flat can be attributed to a show in its nascence rather than an alarming shortcoming on behalf of the creators, and the elements that resonate well only build genuine excitement for what’s to come. Central Park taps into the magic of musical theater thanks to a creative team that understands how powerful the medium can be. Once Bouchard and company finally strike that ideal balance between music and dialogue, this series has the potential to morph into a truly momentous experience.

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