A sweet, awkward beta male has trouble meeting girls. A sweet, awkward beta male has anxiety about his best friend outgrowing their relationship. A sweet, awkward beta male experiments with his sexuality. All three sound like standard plot lines of a certain kind of small-scale Sundance dramedy — the kind with tiny box office redeemed by an even tinier budget, a promising future as something to stream during a cozy night in, and a name like Swanberg or Duplass attached to it. And that’s exactly what Animals is, with just a few minor tweaks.
Co-created by Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, Animals is essentially an indie film success story where the happy ending takes place not at the multiplex, but in keeping with the times, HBO. With just a few shorts — including I Love You, Baby in 2013 and Animals Horses, from which Animals. is partially adapted, in 2012 — under their belts, Matarese and Luciano produced Animals’ first two episodes independently, with the help of mumblecore-vets-turned-“micromoguls” Mark and Jay Duplass. The episodes were then screened at last year’s Sundance, where HBO picked up not one, but two seasons. Not bad for two guys who met at an ad production company and decided to make a short about the pigeons that hung out by their office.
The other major difference between Animals and the typical story of quirky, inept young white people — or even Togetherness, the Duplass brothers’ other HBO series, which premieres its second season later this month — is that it’s animated. In theory, this gives Matarese and Luciano the freedom to give their version of New York the same surreality and visual density as Bojack Horseman‘s version of Los Angeles. The obvious parallels between the two series, however, begin and end with a handful of obligatory animal puns; where Bojack is lush, thematically ambitious, and serialized, Animals is a deliberately low-key collage, hopping from one set of characters to another in a desaturated, borderline noir version of the city that’s closer to Girls than any animated show currently on the air.
Matarese and Luciano co-star in every episode, changing species but almost always keeping the same persona. In “Rats,” they play shy, neurotic rats doing their best to “make babies” with the right, or really any, woman; in “Dogs,” they play shy, neurotic dogs trapped in a prison-yard like dog park. Occasionally, they break form and go weirder in standout episodes like “Cats,” where confinement has fostered a creepy, super-intimate bond between two feline siblings. But before long, they’ve moved on to a new episode and a new pair of roles, unconnected to the last. Combined with interludes featuring horses, caterpillars, and bedbugs, Animals takes on the feeling of a sketch show, where the sketches have more to do with capturing a mildly comic sense of urban ennui than pulling off a joke.
There are some advantages to Animals’ structure, primarily the heaps of A-list guest stars made suddenly attainable when their roles call for just a handful of lines to be read off in a recording studio. Nick Kroll, Chelsea Peretti, Eric Andre, Molly Shannon and Kumail Nanjiani all make appearances in the first handful of episodes; as with other animated shows, listening for them is half the fun. But it also limits the series’ ability to inspire much in the way of emotional investment, the kind that’s often needed for audiences to put up with relentless social awkwardness as a substitute for traditional premise-and-punchline humor — the kind that, not coincidentally, has remained a staple of short-form comedy (Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele) even as longer form comedy’s grown more experimental.
Animals does have something resembling a season-long arc, in which New York’s corrupt mayor — like all humans, he talks in a garbled dialect that’s a distant cousin of Peanuts’ adult-speak — murders prostitutes, sells Central Park to developers, and generally acts like a Bad Dude. It adds an undercurrent of darkness to a show that otherwise dwells on issues like pigeons’ masculinity issues or bedbugs’ midlife crises. This contrast has the potential to introduce either a disorienting tonal mismatch or some intriguingly black comedy to the mix; at different times in the series, true to its fragmentary nature, it does both.
Mostly, though, Animals sticks to the little things, with humor that derives chiefly from talking animals living an ultra-realistic New York lifestyle (the premiere includes a debate over whether one would use the Metro North or Amtrak to make the trip upstate; later, the cats’ litter box turn out to have a medicine cabinet stocked with Purr-cocet) while still being, well, animals (two dogs pause some small talk to sniff each other’s butts). Basically, the pun-driven stuff one expects out of a show called Animals, expectations Bojack deliberately exceeded while Animals has no intention to. It’s better for a mild chuckle than a laugh, and just like those Sundance movies that inevitably wind up on Netflix, it’s best watched zoning out on one’s couch late at night — which is precisely where HBO scheduled it.
Animals premieres Friday, February 5 at 11:30 pm on HBO.