Review: NBC’s ‘Animal Practice’ better with monkeys than people

NBC has four new sitcoms debuting this fall, and has chosen two of them to sneak preview during its Olympic coverage – a glorious two-week stretch where people are actually watching NBC again. One of those sitcoms is “Go On,” which aired last night; the other is “Animal Practice,” which will air a commercial-free version of its pilot episode tomorrow night in the odd timeslot of 10:38 p.m.

“Go On” has an obvious selling point in Matthew Perry, even if the presence of a “Friends” star on a non-“Friends” show has never been a guarantee of good ratings.(*) “Animal Practice” has something potentially more universal and long-lasting in its appeal: a monkey.

(*) Examples include not only Perry’s last show, “Mr. Sunshine” (Yay), but a guest appearance on “Ally McBeal” that essentially canceled that show – FOX execs viewed Perry as a last-ditch attempt to bring back viewers, and when instead that episode was among the show’s lowest-rated ever, they gave up and pulled the plug within days – the entire ABC run of Courteney Cox’s “Cougar Town” (including separate episodes guest starring Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow that failed to move the needle), etc. “Joey” (the one time any of them appeared as a “Friends” character post-“Friends”) had very good debut ratings, but the audience left rapidly, until less than half remained by the end of its first season.  

There are human actors on “Animal Practice” as well – Justin Kirk from “Weeds,” JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Tyler Labine and Bobby Lee, among others – but if you were watching the ads for it during the Olympics, you’d be forgiven from assuming that all of them pale in importance to Crystal, the monkey actress who has previously appeared in the “Night at the Musuem” films, “The Hangover Part II,” “We Bought A Zoo” and – perhaps most of interest to NBC comedy viewers – “Community,” where she played a character named Annie’s Boobs.

People like monkeys. Well-trained monkeys can be very funny, particularly when the monkeys can be trained to act enough like humans do, as Crystal does throughout the “Animal Practice” pilot as “Dr.” Rizzo, who assists the human characters in gambling and other shenanigans, but doesn’t help them actually practice veterinary medicine. (Not yet, anyway, but let’s wait until November sweeps before we dismiss that as a plot point.) 

The “Animal Practice” creative team – led by writers Alessandro Tanaka and Brian Gatewood and directors Joe and Anthony Russo (also “Community” alums) – wisely deploy Crystal and some less famous animal co-stars throughout the series pilot. There are animals in nearly every frame of the show, whether they’re being treated, doted on, berated, exploited for the humans’ entertainment, or fighting back. (A python gets one of the episode’s bigger laughs.) The show functions on level as a parody of self-serious (human) hospital shows, and the way all the creatures big and small seem to have the run of this place adds to the lunatic flavor.

It’s with the people where “Animal Practice” runs into more difficulty. There are talented, likable comic performers here, but other than Lee as Dr. Yamamoto, all of them are upstaged early and often by their animal co-stars. (And, ironically, Yamamoto is depicted as a beta male who gets dominated by every member of the food chain.)

Kirk, who has a few weeks to go on “Weeds,” plays Dr. George Coleman, who prefers the company of animals to people – except, that is, when he’s using lessons from the animal kingdom to seduce women. Kirk goes with the anarchic spirit of the show, and there are occasions where he seems an ideal lead, but he gets too wrapped up, too quickly, in a very human, very mundane, very predictable storyline involving Swisher as his once and future girlfriend, and current boss. There’s some chemistry there, but not enough to overcome a desire to just go back to the monkey or the python.

And that’s the greatest potential pitfall for “Animal Practice.” People laugh at monkey business, but there’s only so much you can do even with a pro like Crystal. For this show to work long-term, its human characters have to become richer – and funnier – so that they can evolve with the audience long post the point where the writers have run out of tricks that Crystal and her various winged or four-legged co-stars can do.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at