In his 2010 Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, writer/director David Michôd made a somewhat heavy-handed meal out of comparing the central Cody crime family to that of a pecking-order-obsessed animal kingdom; witness the wild-animal illustrations that dominate its opening credits, and the speech a detective gives in order to convince one of the sons to give up the rest of his family. By comparison, Jonathan Lisco—an executive producer of this new American TV-series adaptation, and writer of tonight’s first two episodes—relegates the metaphor to a simple line of dialogue Craig Cody (Ben Robson) delivers, gun in hand, to Joshua “J” Cody (Finn Cole) in encouraging him to pull that gun on a bunch of angry surfers: “Show ’em who’s king, man.”
Such subtlety is befitting of a series that, at least on the basis of tonight’s first two episodes, appears to be differentiating itself from Michôd’s film by focusing more on being a character drama than being a fatalistic neo-noir. The Cody clan of Lisco and John Wells’ series offers a study of contrasts. J—introduced in the pilot sitting next to his dead mother, watching TV in a numbed daze—remains as emotionally guarded as he was in the film. The most memorable of the film’s Cody brothers, the hotheaded Andrew “Pope” (played in the series by Shawn Hatosy)—recently released from a three-year prison term after being caught in one of the Cody’s robberies—remains just as dangerously impulsive and mentally disturbed. And, of course, there’s the matriarch, Janine “Smurf” (Ellen Barkin), ruling over this dastardly roost with both Ma Barker-like firmness and parental tenderness.
The other Cody siblings, however, are filled in with more detail. Deran (Jake Weary), the youngest, feels an extra need to prove himself to Smurf—a frustration that only increases when J, forced to live with Smurf (J’s grandmother) and the gang after his mother’s death, enters the picture. No such underpinnings drive Craig (Ben Robson), the middle child, who takes drugs and sleeps with random women with reckless abandon. Perhaps the most intriguing of them all, however, is Barry “Baz” Blackwell (Scott Speedman). He’s the only Cody brother with a wife and daughter, the former of whom gladly partakes in the fruits of her husband and his clan’s life of crime. Still, these personal attachments appear to have somewhat domesticated Baz and made him more level-headed than the rest; at the very least, he’s the only that treats J with a caring respect that borders on the paternal.
All of these character dynamics are put under stress after a heist at the end of the first episode goes terribly wrong, with Baz accidentally killing a cop in the process. In the second episode, “We Don’t Hurt People,” Baz’s relatively idyllic home life is threatened as a result, as he’s forced to spend some time away from his wife, Catherine (Daniella Alonso), and daughter Lena, to figure out his next move. A mission to destroy a van full of incriminating evidence brings out Deran’s resentments in full force; after complaining to Craig about how he feels he’s doing all the hard work while Smurf and Baz do all the planning and controlling of money, he goes so far as to propose that he and his brother plan their own crimes if the status quo remains intact. As for Craig, the gunshot wound he sustains near his left shoulder as a result of the heist doesn’t get any better, even after all the painkillers he illegally procures; by the end of the episode, Baz is forced to drive Craig down to Mexico to get necessary treatment.
It is in Mexico, by the way, that Lisco unveils his kind-of cliffhanger to close out the episode: a shot of Baz embracing and kissing a Mexican woman he seems to know intimately, suggesting that he’s carrying on an extramarital affair, the nature of which will be revealed soon enough. This comes on top of a tantalizing exchange earlier in the episode between Pope and Catherine that implies their own affair. Unrelated but similarly curiosity-piquing is a quick flashback to Smurf as a young girl while the adult version rummages through a bathroom medicine cabinet. Not much happens in that seconds-long flashback: It’s just young Janine closing a medicine cabinet and heeding her mother’s call to come quickly. But it leaves present-day Smurf momentarily flustered. Perhaps Lisco will dive more into her own personal backstory as the series progresses—which is something that Michôd never bothered to do in his film. Such moments are clever ways of drawing us closer into these characters’ lives, indicating Lisco’s desire to explore them as flesh-and-blood people.
Through it all, the emotionally reserved J remains the closest Animal Kingdom has an audience surrogate: the outsider observing these morally suspect specimens from a distance. And yet, whereas the J of Michôd’s film was painted as a paragon of morality in an environment bereft of it, the J of Lisco and Wells’ series is more ambiguous, if still essentially sympathetic. Certainly, considering how his mother inadvertently killed herself, one can grasp why he would find Smurf’s affection more bracing. And despite Pope’s skepticism of J, the rest of the Cody brothers gradually come to embrace J with open arms. But if J’s violent lashing-out towards the drug dealer that sold his mother the drugs that killed her and the smile on his face while he beats up another drug dealer along with Craig is any indication, J—a seemingly intelligent kid who appears to be doing well in school—may be on a path to corruption the more he learns about his new family. It’s hard to be sure at this point, especially because as J, Finn Cole does such an impressive job of conveying an elusive, mysterious quality through his laconicism. Such aloofness characterizes the show as a whole so far, with only the slick, sunny Oceanside, California, settings offering any sense of glamour—the kind of glamour that the Cody clan repeatedly turns to crime to procure for themselves.
- Only in the second episode do we finally see an opening-credits sequence for Animal Kingdom—and, with its gritty Atticus Ross music and intercutting between jagged images of idyllic pleasure and violent pain, it strongly recalls that of David Fincher’s Seven.
- In the pilot, upon seeing J wearing yellow sneakers, Craig suggests, among other things, buying Nike Dunks—but “not the orange ones; those are just gay.” Then, in the second episode, we get a glimpse of Deran in a beach bathroom stall getting what appears to be a blow job from the drug dealer supplying him with painkillers before he starts beating up on him when he sees J walk into the bathroom. Overcompensating much? But also indicative of the series’ thick air of machismo thus far.
- I never thought I’d hear “stoichiometry”—a section of chemistry that measures relationships between products and reactants in a chemical reaction—used in a flirtatious context, but J unleashes that gem during his first scene with his girlfriend, Nicky (Molly Gordon).
- Another sign of Lisco’s refreshing ability to suggest meaning through gestures rather than expository dialogue: J’s gesture of throwing her mother’s smartphone into the sea as a way of trying to put his past behind him.
- We’ll see whether Pope’s seeming fixation on Nicky—as evidenced by the creepy way he picks her up from a couch as she sleeps laying her head on J’s lap and puts her onto a bed—leads to something much more, um, troubling in the future.