I really liked season one of ANIMAL KINGDOM. It was a fun family crime drama set in sunny California where the protagonists, the Cody family, would drink, throw crazy house parties where the drugs were in high supply, surf, and have hot sex in between heists. While this is a family who does bad things and enjoys every minute of it, season one gave us great character moments to help us understand who they are and their motivations were clear. Ellen Barkin leads a strong cast as mama bear Smurf whose psycho-incestuous relationship with her four sons was fascinating to watch. In season one their biggest adversary were two FBI agents who were out to make them all pay for their years of criminal activity buy turning Smurf’s grandson “J” as an informant. As we were seeing the Cody family through J’s naïveté we rooted not only for him, but for all the Cody’s. In the season one finale their biggest heist to date was a success and we left them celebrating by the pool with J looking on. That would be the last time we’d see the Cody’s together, as a happy family.
ANIMAL KINGDOM returned for season two this summer and while still set in sunny California, it was anything but bright and fun. The Cody boys have all turned on Smurf. They don’t trust her. With the revolt lead by “adopted” son Baz (Scott Speedman), the early episodes are confusing and quite frankly a mess. It all feels plot driven, with few, if any character moments that we were treated to in season one. Its darkness is a sharp contrast from season one and is quite frankly jarring. Don’t get me wrong, I love dark dramas, but it needs to make sense and be character driven.
This season the major conflict is the boys believe Smurf has been too controlling over their heists, giving them little input. This theme is a holdover from season one and was pretty well covered then. These boys aren’t the brightest and someone needs to be the leader. Also, Smurf knows how to “clean” the money. They also suspect that she’s been keeping a little extra for herself, which she has. Duh! But they’ve always known who Smurf is and they also know that she’s provided for them all these years. They grew up in a nice house, never hungry. Each of them lives in one of the apartment she owns by the beach and they have every high octane toy they could want.
So it was particularly confusing when they all turned on her, especially Baz. She took him in when he was a kid. She rescued him from an drunken, abusive father. Yet still, he felt the need to lead the charge against her, setting her up for murder. It makes no sense. Baz also has a young daughter who he all but ignored most of the season and when he was with her he treated her as an inconvenience. The writers chose to turn him into the “big bad” this season without exploring WHY he would make such a shift. Her sons Pope, Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary) follow Baz’s lead because they’re followers. They each have their own demons to reckon with as well. Of all the sons, Pope (Shawn Hatosy) has the best reason to hate his mother. Not long after being released from prison after taking the rap for Baz during one of their heists, Smurf convinces him to murder Baz’s girlfriend who during season one they thought was informing on them to the FBI. What made this particularly tragic is that Pope had been in love with her, but he killed her to protect the family. During the season he often goes out to the desert where he buried her body. He tried to find solace and maybe redemption through religion, but that backfires. Character moments.
Aside from Pope’s struggle with his guilt, especially after learning his lost love wasn’t informing for the FBI, the other characters were there mostly to service the plot. J who drove most of season one’s action was merely there as a device to move the plot in a certain direction. The character was also saddled with a revived romance with his hot mess high school girlfriend Nicky (Molly Gordon). No crime family would every put up with Nicky’s constant presence and in a higher stakes drama the character would have been killed off this season. But again, Nicky’s presence is plot driven. She’s the only other woman in the ensemble other than Smurf and gets to have “romances” with J and his Uncle Craig (a plot thread holdover from season one). In an effort to make the character interesting and edgy they give her a cocaine addiction, helped along during her relationship with Craig. Yawn.
Then there’s Deran. He’s gay. So of course in a show where toxic masculinity rules, the character is closeted to all but one of his brothers (Craig). When he does come out to Smurf, he does it as an act of revenge. Deran is given no viable love interests and while he does try to move into a life outside of crime by buying a local dive bar it’s not enough. Jake Weary does a lot with an underwritten for character. Note to writers: one hot sex scene a season is not character development.
The season ended with all the characters in hopeless places and the final act had a shocking moment proving that everything proceeding it was all plot driven. I can buy into the idea that a crime family will have moments of distrust and infighting but I couldn’t buy into the way it played out.
ANIMAL KINDOM was a mess this season. I can’t recommend watching it. That’s disappointing because I really enjoyed the first season. The show has been renewed for a third season so hopefully the writers will regroup, refocus and give us stories that make sense for these characters.