Though based on David Michôd’s film Animal Kingdom, TNT’s new series of the same name owes more of its sensibility to Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, reveling in a similarly heightened atmosphere of brah-centric braggadocio. Series developer Jonathan Lisco funnels the sexual neuroses of the former through the more freely erotic chicness of the latter, following the adventures of a clan of California surfers-cum-bank robbers as they elude capture by the police while taking stock of shifting internal loyalties.
Like the film, Animal Kingdom follows a criminal family as they uneasily accept a new member into their fold, but the series dials down the class-conscious viciousness, proffering a simpler fantasy of glamorous debauchery colored with an incestuous kink. The film’s cramped Australian neighborhoods have been traded for expansive beach vistas, and the criminals have received a noticeable upgrade in terms of flirty approachability. This new clan is ready for the cover of Men’s Health or Maxim, sporting six-pack abs, perfectly coifed hair, and trimmed facial hair for a sense of unthreatening “grit.”
The series opens with its most startling scene, which is the one moment lifted directly from the film: the casual death of a junkie by overdose as she watches TV in a low-income apartment. Her son, J (Finn Cole), sits beside her as she dies on a dilapidated couch and police question him. J calls his estranged grandmother, Janine Cody (Ellen Barkin), a.k.a. “Smurf,” and the woman takes him into a home that includes a cadre of adult uncles who live an id-governed existence that suggests they never matured beyond their late teens. Pool parties are frequent, tequila and coke are abundant, and women wander the halls in perpetual stages of undress, including Smurf, a shrewd and hot grand-MILF who relishes the creepily sensual hold she has over her sons, who have separate residences, but call Mom’s house “home.” Smurf has fashioned a paradise of excess, paid for by inventive smash-and-grab operations, most recently the excitingly staged robbery of a jewelry store.
The series’s most gratifying surprise is its refusal to render J a bland totem of reactive decency in the tradition of many audience surrogates. He’s young and scared, but he greets his new lifestyle the way most strapping, good-looking young men able to acclimate themselves to a life of thrill-seeking entitlement would: He’s turned on by it. Animal Kingdom doesn’t waste time flimsily toying with the possibility that J will reject this life, using him instead as a simple explanatory device as well as a means of contrast in which to highlight the family’s various tensions. The show’s central source of dramatic tension resides in how well J can account for himself with Smurf, as his competency threatens to throw the other men off the tracks of their pre-established roles, allowing for an episodic structure that’s composed entirely of testosterone-fueled tête-à-têtes as J’s uncles take turns working him over.
Animal Kingdom is superficial and derivative of countless other films and crime shows, lacking the nihilistic heat of its source material and the transcendently elegant formality of Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. But it also decadently relishes in the objectification of both genders with amusing shamelessness, suggesting a Fast and Furious sequel before that series grew bloated with its absurd and flatulent testimonies to the value of “family” (here, the word is uttered with all the submerged hostility of a bad joke). The actors embrace the lurid extremes of the material, particularly Barkin, and the slick direction abounds in kicky come-hither pillow shots of booze, drugs, and swimsuit-ready bodies. The series is refreshingly pared down of hypocritical morality, openly embracing its purpose as an embodiment of the fantasies that drive us to the West Coast: namely of anonymous sex and the ability to do whatever the hell we want, whenever the hell we want.