It makes a certain kind of sense that the crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” based on a 2010 Australian film of the same name, ends up being as deceptive as the family at its heart. At first, the TNT show looks as though it may be a promising showcase for Ellen Barkin, who stars as the matriarch of a beach-side clan that lives well thanks to its penchant for cleverly executed heists.,
But in the course of the drama’s first three episodes, it becomes more and more apparent that, despite its characters’ shady pasts and dicey decisions, the show is, on the whole, fairly predictable and even conventional. Its characters never really do anything all that surprising: It’s no shock that a family united by heists would end up breaking all sorts of other laws, and any time anyone on screen utters the sentence, “There are no secrets in this family,” that’s the cue for a scene or two of duplicitous behavior.
Though the cast is packed with solid actors clearly eager to play morally shady thieves, the characters are not written with the kind of depth and texture that would make the Cody family’s crime sprees, troubled relationships, and simmering arguments worth following. Time and again, characters take “shocking” actions that are meant to signal that the show is willing to go to dark places, but there’s so little context and history behind those moments that it’s difficult to care about what occurs or about the ramifications of those acts.
It’s a tribute to Barkin that she almost makes Janine “Smurf” Cody work as a character. Smurf is the manipulative matriarch who controls the purse strings of the Cody gang, and, as “Animal Kingdom” begins, her four sons are feeling restive about the fact that they’re being kept on short leashes, emotionally and financially. She’s constantly preparing meals and snacks for her boys, but she keeps them deprived in other ways, and there’s a slightly incestuous vibe to how she interacts with the young men in her orbit, whether or not they’re tied to her by blood. There’s a calculated strategy behind the way she disciplines her boys by either withholding her attention or lavishing them with her creepy love, and Barkin is charismatic enough to inject those scenes with layers of shading and ambiguity.
The actress gives the character a queenly walk and a tough, steely vibe, but, despite her formidable abilities, Smurf never quite becomes the love-to-hate-her character she could be, in part because some of the worst things she does make it easy to write her off as a garden-variety sociopath. The viewer doesn’t need to like Smurf for the show to work, but the character’s more odious actions are not counterbalanced by the kind of shading that would make her power plays worth watching over the long term.
Scott Speedman acquits himself well as Barry “Baz” Blackwell, an adopted son who tries to keep the family peace, which is no easy task, but Baz is saddled with two underdeveloped romantic relationships, both of which lack depth and nuance. Shawn Hatosy is impressive as Andrew “Pope” Cody, whose unsettling intensity hints at much deeper psychological problems, but Pope’s character doesn’t really go anywhere: In almost every scene he’s in, he’s odd, angry, or resentful, and that’s about it.
In any case, the focus in the early episodes is on Joshua “J” Cody (Finn Cole), Smurf’s grandson, who has been estranged from the family but is reunited with the clan early in the pilot. Cole is a likable enough actor (and unlike some other non-American members of the cast, his Southern California accent sounds legit), but ultimately the character proves to be a somewhat bland and underwhelming entry point into the Codys’ world.
The Codys may be bold risk-takers, but the territory this show explores — aggression, rule-breaking, and criminal conspiracies within a dysfunctional family— has been thoroughly mined by decades of films and TV shows. Like the recent cable dramas “Vinyl” and “Feed the Beast,” this TNT series just doesn’t have many unique or fresh things to say about crime, unconventional clans, and the limits of traditionally defined masculinity.
“Animal Kingdom” wants to jolt the viewer with bursts of intense energy, but in the end, it feels like a relic from cable TV’s semi-recent past. It’s certainly more challenging than TNT’s last few batches of procedurals, but it’s unlikely to be a game-changer.