Ellen Barkin delivers a masterful and spellbinding performance as Janine “Smurf” Cody on TNT’s new drama “Animal Kingdom.” Part lioness and part Michael Corleone, Barkin’s Smurf skulks and pounces as she fiercely leads and protects her four nefarious sons and their ever-growing criminal enterprise.
Her turn is especially impressive when you consider the series is not only based on the 2010 Australian movie of the same name, but that Jacki Weaver’s Oscar-nominated performance in the role garnered the film international attention. “Animal Kingdom” premieres in two parts June 14 and is executive produced by John Wells (“Shameless”) and Jonathan Lisco (“Halt and Catch Fire”).
Unlike with Weaver’s Smurf, who seems good but turns out to bad, Barkin is bad from the start and appears to be having too much fun as a calculating mother and villain to play it any other way. For instance, when Smurf takes in her grandson, Joshua” J” Cody (Finn Cole), after his mother dies from a heroin overdose, there is no doubt that she expects him to earn his keep in the family business.
Just as viewers will likely feel, J doesn’t know what to make of Smurf or his late mother’s hyper-masculine brothers. There’s Baz, (Scott Speedman) the level-headed leader; Pope (Shawn Hatosy), newly released from prison and flush with insecurity; Craig, (Ben Robson) the mercurial middle child; and impish Deran (Jake Weary), who harbors a secret or two.
Cole (“Peaky Blinders”), meanwhile, is quite likable as J, a Faust like figure who constantly treads the line between what is right and what is necessary but wrong. When he brings his upper middle-class girlfriend Nicky (Molly Gordon, “Love the Coopers”) into his family’s orbit, the setting quickly becomes sticky and awkward. A part in the pilot when Pope interacts with a rather vulnerable Nicky is particularly rife with discomfort.
But Hatosy’s (“Southland) Pope is not quite as he seems and aside from an unfortunate shot of his bare backside in episode two, Hatosy weaves an intriguing performance worth the watch.
Speedman (“Felicity”) as Baz is equally beguiling and in the first three installments proves to be more imperfect than forthright. Baz and Smurf’s conversations are also some of the best on the show making the drama feel more like “Sons of Anarchy” than “Point Break.”
Make no mistake about it, Oceanside’s beach town surf culture is just as much a part of “Animal Kingdom’s” fibers as its gritty proximity to the Mexican border. Lesser known actors Robson (“Vikings”) and Weary, as Craig and Deran respectively, really look the part with their tanned, gym-sculpted bodies and wind-tousled manes. But every now and again, Robson’s native British accent bleeds through and betrays him. Otherwise, Robson is a force of nature making you despise him in one turn and root for him in another.
Robson also delivers and takes part in many of the series’ raciest scenes involving partial nudity, sex and basic-cable approved swear words, which also happen to be part of Chief Creative Officer Kevin Reilly’s more edgy vision for TNT. If the small-screen “Animal Kingdom” had landed on Showtime as originally planned, the possibilities for nudity and bawdy language would be boundless. Alas, this is TNT so wisdom and time must be utilized in order for these devises to feel more like organic enhancements than schoolyard gratuities.
Meanwhile, Barkin’s matriarchal dominance serves as a divine nucleus within the center of the show’s testosterone-fueled existence. She’s strong and sexy but not sexualized.
Thankfully, the “Sea of Love” and “Ocean’s 13” star is not the only female character with substantial feminine energy amid a bounty of beautiful girlfriends, sidepieces and hookups. Although the show fails the Bechdel test in the pilot, it course corrects by episode three, culminating in a meaty back-and-forth between Smurf and Catherine (Daniella Alonso), Baz’s common-law wife.
If you want to be intrigued by a working-class crime family filled with pretty people and petty deeds, “Animal Kingdom” is the imperfect but entertaining summer offering you need in your life. Get ready to roar.
“Animal Kingdom” premiered Tuesday June 14 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based television critic. She’s also one of the co-founders of Antenna Free TV (AntennaFree.tv). The Detroit native has covered the medium and the entertainment industry for 17 years. Madden Toby is also an NPR expert commentator who has written for MSN TV, The Detroit News, TV Guide, CNN.com, Playboy.com, People Magazine, Us Weekly, The Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Minneapolis Star Tribune and The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Wayne State University. Madden Toby is also a wife and mother. When Madden Toby was 10, she started her own magazine and paid her staff in candy. Check out her podcast, “TV Madness with Mekeisha Madden Toby,” at tvmadnessmmt.podbean.com or on iTunes