The criminal power dynamic in TNT’s Animal Kingdom is ostensibly simple. Smurf (Ellen Barkin) is the matriarch puppet master, Pope (Shawn Hatosy) is the broken former leader re-acclimating himself after a stint in jail, Baz (Scott Speedman) is the level-headed outsider, Craig (Ben Robson) is the immature loose cannon, Deran (Jake Weary) is the wannabe tough guy, and J (Finn Cole) is the observer. Through the first two episodes the series has more or less adhered to story beats from the 2010 movie it’s based on, effortlessly swapping the film’s Down Under suburbs with California beaches. But it’s stressed its machismo in a reference to the brutish aggression of the show’s title so much that it could all basically be called Testosterone: The TV Series. If that was the case, Animal Kingdom could get boring quickly. Thankfully the third episode was a transition that began to show signs of how the series may come into its own.
Last episode we left Baz and Craig south of the border, with the latter chewed up by a festering bullet wound courtesy of the now-dead cop that almost caught the Cody crew on their first big job since Pope got out of jail. The quick trip for some Tijuana back alley surgery was a bittersweet one for the Cody clan because it allowed them all to lay low for awhile — literally and figuratively.
Post-op, Craig immediately pulled the reluctant Baz away from his Spanish sidepiece to soak up some Mexican sun (and also do some smuggling for a cartel heavy, hinting at the Codys’ secret drug business). Meanwhile back in California, the still weary but angry Pope has to turn down a job from an ex-con friend, Deran has to go collect rent from a Cody tenant who ends up being the guy he had a bathroom encounter with last episode, and J has to double-cross Nicky and Nicky’s military man father to steal back the watch he gave her that’s part of the jewelry job’s stolen goods.
The heat has somewhat died down – but something tells us that it won’t stay down for long.
It all plays out in a fairly straightforward sense. This episode features a bunch of characters simply choosing to disrupt the family’s trust in each other, and thats where Animal Kingdom begins to flourish. You break the strong core at the center of the show and see where the pieces gradually fall. The movie had a two-hour runtime that obviously allowed it to be a self-contained whole, but the biggest question for the TV series was how it would stretch that out so it wouldn’t overstay its welcome. The show is smart for pushing the family against one another beyond macho squabbles and arm wrestling this early on. Sure, there’s always going to be inter-family pissing contests, but the fallout forces the family to change orbits and allegiances. You’ve got to plant the seeds of drama and Animal Kingdom is wasting no time.
The most interesting orbit is Baz and J, who are both the adopted members of the Cody family. The show would have had a big problem with Baz as a character if they mirrored him after his movie counterpart, who’s brutally murdered about 20 minutes into it. Instead, the show sends him to Mexico with Craig, reveals he has a secret girlfriend and is willing to go against Smurf’s commands, and things get interesting in a brand new way. It becomes increasingly interesting when J finds out – after being pulled into small-money smash-and-grab job by Pope, which forces him to try and run away to find a guy his mother thought might be his dad – that Baz actually might be his father. The familial plot thickens.
It’s all actually about Smurf, though. She’s the one who told Pope to try and rope the young intruder to his side instead of Baz’s — “J’s up for grabs” she whispers to the impressionable ex-con — but she also lets the news slip to the vulnerable J about Baz’s potential parentage. The reasons behind it all from her point of view are just a bit cloudy. She’s about family, and yet she’d pit the strongest against the weakest for some sadistic oedpial power struggle. They’re all trying to get out from under Smurf’s influences because of situations she controls.
The hope is that the reasons for her machinations become a bit more clear as the show progresses. It’s obvious these people have a whole mess of secrets yet to be exposed. Heading into its fourth episode and Animal Kingdom is positioning its roided-out surfer bum pieces rather nicely.