With its second season now complete, it’s fair to say that Animal Kingdom has become one of the best summer shows going and, in so doing, helped to raise the bar for TNT, once best known for network-lite fare like The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles.
Based on an Australian crime film of the same name, Animal Kingdom follows the Codys, a literal crime family headed by their matriarch, Smurf (Ellen Barkin), who plans the jobs and launders the money, leaving her three sons (Shawn Hatosy, Ben Robson, Jake Weary), surrogate son (Scott Speedman) and grandson (Finn Cole) to do the dirty work.
Season 1 mostly centered on grandson J, and his uneasy entry into the clan after the death of his mother, who had been estranged from the rest. In season 2, J is fully integrated into the business, which allows the show to pull back and widen the scope of its plot.
To begin with, tensions between Smurf and the boys are high, with the boys having decided to take over the planning of the jobs, leaving Smurf only to launder the cash. Deran and Craig have both moved out of Smurf’s house, and are both making moves to escape her clutches: Deran buying a bar that he sees as a means of legitimate income so he can get out of the game, and Craig planning a job himself after traditionally just being used as muscle. These two have probably the closest relationship in the show, as the youngest of Smurf’s kids, and as played by Weary and Robson, it rings really true to the mix of bone-deep frustration and die-hard loyalty brothers can feel for one another.
Though Deran has his head on straight (now that he’s fully out of the closet and no longer beating up his dates to throw his brothers off the scent), Craig has quite a bit more growing up to do, having scooped up J’s high-school girlfriend Nikki after J broke up with her to keep her safe from the family’s business. Nikki likes Craig because he’s six-foot-awesome and always flush with coke, but his reticence to commit and all-around flakiness have her staring longingly at J’s bedroom door.
As season 1 ended, Baz, who was a family friend that Smurf took in as a teenager to rescue him from an abusive father and ended up being Smurf’s top lieutenant thanks to his cool head and general business sense, had been outed as possibly being J’s father. But the J-Baz relationship has bigger challenges, as Smurf moves to keep J close even as Baz pulls the rest of the Codys away from her. When Baz makes a discovery that turns him against Smurf for good, J’s loyalty is more hotly contested than ever.
Baz, who was sort of the “good” Cody in season 1, once again owing to his cool head and general business sense, turns out to be a little less sympathetic in season 2: Though his discovery about Smurf and his sense of injustice about it appears to be correct and justfied, he also shows himself to be a shockingly indifferent father, which creates some tension between him and oldest Cody Pope, who is more than happy to step in and care for Lena, Baz’s young daughter.
That relationship is further fraught by the fact that Pope killed Lena’s mother, Katherine, last season on Smurf’s orders, when they learned that Katherine had been talking to the police. Even worse, Katherine was with Pope before the more handsome, more charming Baz stole her, and just before Pope did her in, she told him that Lena was his daughter. Maybe that was just a desperate plea for her life, maybe not, but Pope is definitely more interested in the child than Baz is.
This show has always been centered on its boys-will-be-boys adventures, but it’s worth noting that the women (Smurf, Nikki, Baz’s new girlfriend Lucy, Pope’s new girlfriend Amy) have a huge influence on all of them; both Smurf and Lucy coach Nikki, who is impatient to be a full member of the gang, on how to be part of the action without being part of the action, and we see again and again how much sway the women hold over the guys — even Deran.
The performances here are strong across the board: Barkin is alternately loving and cunning, Speedman has found new layers in Baz as the character gets less sympathetic, and Hatosy, in particular, imbues Pope, a known murderer and borderline psychopath, with a soulfulness and remorse that makes the audience want to root for him even after all he’s done.
Like last season, there are several well-executed heist sequences to keep things exciting, there is plenty of eye candy for whatever your persuasion may happen to be, and the plots are consistently interesting and organic; it never feels like a cheap soap opera and everything makes sense even when it’s surprising. The show has already been renewed for a third season, and there are a couple of big plot developments in the finale that point the way forward.
Season 2 of Animal Kingdom is available on-demand on TNT.