Review: Surf, Sun, and Sibling Rivalry on TNT Crime Drama ‘Animal Kingdom’

Earlier this year there was a remake of Point Break, the 1991 Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze classic about an FBI agent infiltrating a gang of bank robbers who also happen to be extreme athletes (or perhaps they’re extreme athletes who happen to be bank robbers). The original was an inventive (if slightly cheesy) splice of an old-fashioned bank-caper flick and the national obsession with the Southern California lifestyle of sun and surfing and reckless boys-will-be-boys behavior.

Alas, the 2015 remake tanked, presumably because of its awful reviews, but TNT’s new series Animal Kingdom, premiering June 14 with back-to-back episodes, serves as both a kind of mulligan on the basic idea (SoCal surfers who rob banks) and an announcement of TNT’s entry into the premium-drama business so long dominated by the likes of HBO, AMC, and FX.

An adaptation not of Point Break (or the other Point Break) but of the 2010 Australian crime film of the same name, Animal Kingdom reunites TNT with executive producer John Wells and showrunner Jonathan Lisco, who previously brought the criminally underrated cop drama Southland to the network.

When 17-year-old Josh “J” Cody (Finn Cole) finds his mother dead of a heroin overdose, he’s got nowhere to go but to live with her estranged family, and it’s not long before we figure out why they were estranged: J’s grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin) has raised a team of armed robbers, pulling enough jobs on banks and jewelry stores and various retail establishments to keep them flush with motorcycles, jet skis, cars, trucks, drugs, women, and all the toys a decadent bunch of young men could ever ask for.

Smurf’s gang-slash-family includes Baz (Scott Speedman), a surrogate son she took in as a teenager, who is generally the most sensible and pragmatic of the gang; Craig (Ben Robson), the most impulsive and hedonistic of the gang; Deran (Jake Weary), the youngest and quietest of the Codys, who’s slightly threatened by J’s arrival; and Pope (the excellent Shawn Hatosy, brought over from Southland), the oldest Cody, who is unexpectedly paroled just after J arrives at Smurf’s house and is none too pleased to find the kid in his old room.

Exclusive Interview: Jake Weary on playing a bad boy on TNT’s Animal Kingdom

Soon enough, the Codys are doing another job, Pope is ignoring the very sensible recommendation that he keep his nose clean while on parole, complications ensue and the stakes go up, and J’s head and moral compass are both spinning. Is he going to go all-in with this family of criminals, and succumb to the lure of easy money?

A lot of shows would stop right there and milk that question for all it’s worth, but Animal Kingdom wisely adds another layer: if J does decide to embrace the family business, he’s still going to have to fight for his place in it. Smurf seems like a loving, doting grandmother, all “my boys love this” and “my boys deserve that” but she is subtly playing them against each other and egging them on to jockey for her favor.

We have seen the first three episodes of the show (the pilot is available to everyone on YouTube, below) and we were hooked immediately. Barkin is perfectly cast as Smurf, able to turn on a dime from warm and maternal to scary and calculating, and it’s a rare case where an actor’s questionable cosmetic-surgery choices actually serve the character, as it’s clear that where Smurf once used her sexuality to get what she needed, she’s mostly aged past that (her best efforts notwithstanding) and she’s pivoted to using her motherly sway over “her boys” in a similar way. Hatosy, as I mentioned, was terrific on <i>Southland</i> and is just as good here — I don’t think he raises his voice even once in these early episodes but still manages to be terrifying.

Without getting into spoilers, the show raises a half-dozen interesting complications and plotlines just in the space of its first three episodes, and it seems like it hasn’t even finished clearing its throat. Its vision of the dark underbelly of the sunny Southern California ideal is one of the most interesting new series we’ve seen this year, and is well worth a spot on your summer viewing schedule.

 

Animal Kingdom premieres with back-to-back episodes at 9pm ET Tuesday June 14 on TNT; all episodes will be available on-demand.

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