Based on the Australian movie of the same name, ANIMAL KINGDOM stars Ellen Barkin as Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody, the head of a gorgeous family of criminals living in Southern California (their fairly non-descript or not-specifically-categorized criminal activities pay for their lavish lifestyle). When Smurf’s estranged daughter dies, the family takes in their youngest member, J (played with a middling American accent (a minor complaint) by Finn Cole). Smurf’s sons Craig (Ben Robson, Kalf from VIKINGS) and Deran (Jake Weary) welcome him into the family, and by extension, the business. Second in command, Baz (Scott Speedman) is reluctant to force the family business onto his young nephew, but does so at Smurf’s request. It’s when Shawn Hatosy’s super creepy (like deranged kind of creepy) Pope arrives home, sour and mad after a years-long stint in jail, that things get interesting.
Ellen Barkin is radiant (if only we could all look as amazing as she does) and scary as the woman with all of the control – her kids don’t seem to care much about boundaries as a mishap on a job sends one son crying into her arms, while another more celebratory evening finds a different son snorting coke right in front her. Yet, when it’s time to get down to business, they know she’s the one who says what goes. Always good to see Scott Speedman back on TV – conflicted as his character may be about family ties to his mother, to his wife and kid, to his nephew. He’s playing the role with a nice subtlety – though he doesn’t voice it, you can feel his inner turmoil. Robson and Weary provide a lot to look at and a nice dose of dark comedy, which is a good way to break up the dark tension. Like I said, Hatosy is playing straight up deranged in a role that wipes initially-a-good-guy-Sammy (SOUTHLAND) right from my mind. He makes me uncomfortable but in a way that I don’t want to stop watching when he’s on screen.
There is a good show in here that needs to shake itself out – the exploration of screwed up family dynamics set amid dangerous criminal enterprises, sex, drugs, and surfing. They’re clearly pulling from the source material (a DARK movie with great performances) while adding elements of what made these kind of “outlaw” shows like SONS OF ANARCHY shine for 7 seasons. We don’t learn everything about these characters right away, and little by little, we see more layers to what was initially introduced. The show settles into a really nice groove in episode 2 (the 2nd hour of tonight’s premiere, “We Don’t Hurt People”), and all told, it is a show I’m interested in spending a little more time exploring.