Family dramas often center on secrets, be they of the “building a drug-dealing empire” kind or the “drug-dealing that built an Empire” variety. The creation and maintenance of those secrets often demonstrates just how strong—and twisted—the family’s ties are, even as they threaten to come undone. For the Codys of Animal Kingdom, secrets are a part of the family business, because the family’s dealings are in stolen goods—and business is booming.
Animal Kingdom is the latest drama from Southland executive producers Jonathan Lisco and John Wells, who have adapted David Michôd’s 2010 film for TNT. Several key elements from the film have transferred over—we still have a cunning matriarch leading an army of men, composed of her adult children, and their closeness and criminal enterprise are once again threatened by a young interloper. But there isn’t the same dash to a ruinous end, even though the pilot is a rush of exposition and petty squabbles.
It’s not the most elegant initiation into the Southern California underbelly, which has replaced the Australian suburbs as the setting for much sibling rivalry and confusing intimacy. That might be why TNT opted to tag-team the series’ June 14 premiere by airing the first two episodes together. Oddly, even with a flood of information, the shirtless Cody men are difficult to tell apart early on. Which bronzed surfer’s the short-fused runt of the litter? Which is the short-fused drug addict? But those similarities end up illustrating the cultlike nature of their upbringing.
The Cody “boys”—Pope (Shawn Hatosy), Craig (Ben Robson), and Deran (Jake Weary)—share many of the same motivations and triggers. They’re all vying for their mother’s love and a bigger piece of the family’s criminal enterprise, which consists of smash-and-grab jobs. They’re also all ready to strike out on their own rather than wait to ascend to the throne, possibly because they recognize that their mother won’t relinquish control anytime soon. Their fear of being cut out is heightened when a nephew, Josh, or “J” (Finn Cole), swims into their ken.
The son of their estranged sister, J is effectively orphaned after his mother overdoses in the first three minutes of the pilot in an opening borrowed from the film. He reaches out to his grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin), who welcomes him into the law-breaking brood she rules with an oven-mitted iron fist. J’s never had much of a family—he doesn’t even know his father’s name—yet he’s hesitant to dive right into the alpha male bonding. Rightly so, as his younger uncles instantly become jealous, even while their family friend/adopted brother, Baz (Scott Speedman), remains tolerant. But they’re all wary of the newcomer, who might not be as cool with armed robbery as they are.
J isn’t just a wild card in their dealings—he’s the tabula rasa waiting to be covered in a stream of obscenities and plans for extralegal activities. He’s far from being a straitlaced kid, though he’s not nearly as bad an influence as his girlfriend’s father (Southland alum C. Thomas Howell) presumes. Still, there are few teenage boys who could resist the lure of endless pool parties (or their coke-laden afterparties), and J isn’t one of them. What few morals his mother did instill are easily overrun by gifts of iPhones, big-screen TVs, and easy access to weed.
The series’ thick-as-thieves dynamic is a well-worn premise, and not just because of the source material. Sons Of Anarchy and, more recently, Outsiders have also offered up somewhat glamorized takes on families who live by their own rules. The chest-puffing and male posturing are all par for the course, but showrunner Lisco wisely decides to leave Smurf at the top of the food chain—her sons are trying to displace each other as the alpha because she’s pitting them against each other.
Barkin’s doing the heaviest lifting in the first three episodes, taking over for Jacki Weaver, who received an Academy Award nomination in the originating role. The actress, late of Showtime’s Happyish, appears to be up to the task. Barkin’s Smurf is a combination of sweet domesticity and ripened sexuality, building up her sons’ confidence just as quickly—and happily—as she tears it down. Her presentation is overtly sexual, which dials up the incestuous vibe and the resulting “ick” factor.
The rest of the cast is solid, including Hatosy and Cole, the latter of whom has made his way to basic cable from Peaky Blinders. The other real standout is Speedman as Baz, Smurf’s cagey lieutenant who knows blood is thicker than the water everyone’s surfing on. Speedman’s coiled performance reflects his character’s restlessness, which drives him south of the border into a second life away from his girlfriend and child. As the (unofficially) adopted son, Baz has always had more to prove than his siblings, but that status also motivates him to get out of Smurf’s thrall. Animal Kingdom could similarly hold sway over its audience, as long as it plays to the strengths of its cast.