68° Good Afternoon
68° Good Afternoon

‘Animal Kingdom’ review: Ellen Barkin as crime-boss matriarch

Finn Cole stars as the estranged grandson returned

Finn Cole stars as the estranged grandson returned to a criminal family in TNT's "Animal Kingdom." Credit: TNT / Michael Muller

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday night at 9 on TNT


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Joshua Cody (Finn Cole), who’s 17, is forced to move in with his estranged grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin) after his mom dies of an overdose. Estranged for a reason: Cody is matriarch of a family crime syndicate, and her sons Baz (Scott Speedman), Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary) are planning another score just as “J” moves in.

Matters become more complicated — also harrowing — when the oldest son, Pope (Shawn Hatosy), gets out of jail, and rejoins the gang. Based on the 2010 Australian movie of the same name, this production was adapted by Jonathan Lisco (“Halt and Catch Fire”) and John Wells (“ER”).

MY SAY “Animal Kingdom” — based on a 2010 movie starring Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver as Smurf — is an “anti” show. Anti-hero, anti-family, anti-optimistic, anti-cliche, anti-expectations, too. “Anti,” in this context, is “good.”

There’s not a second of dead space in Wells’ tautly directed opener, and barely a second of exposition either. You’re mostly on your own, left to sort out motive, back story, character and plot. That’s all good, too.

Finally, “Kingdom” wants to invert everything you’ve been taught about prime-time crime dramas — the Act 1 setup, the square-jawed good guy, the crashing violence, the rip-roaring wrap. And that is best of all.

But in the midst of all this otherwise welcome subversion, something’s missing — call it a hint of light, or open space, or maybe an open heart. “Kingdom” is so determinedly bleak that it almost forgets it has to close a bargain with viewers — that deep ineffable pact made with any promising new TV series which is built on the assurance that time won’t be wasted or passion squandered. To an extent, Cole’s J is a proxy for viewers, and their entry point. He’s the kid next door, the unsullied one. Will he turn to the dark side? Or does he represent that “hint of light”?

The most interesting character, or certainly most compelling, is Barkin’s Smurf. She’s a Ma Barker with cleavage, a brownie-baking Gemma Teller (“Sons of Anarchy”). Ultimately, she may be the one to seal the pact here.

BOTTOM LINE Nicely subversive anti-hero drama

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