‘Animal Kingdom’ May Be TNT’s First Genuinely Great Prestige Drama

The critically adored, if not widely seen, 2010 Australian film Animal Kingdom put three stellar Aussie actors on the map here in America: Jacki Weaver (who won an Oscar for the movie), Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline), and Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Great Gatsby). It also elevated the career of its writer/director David Michôd, who followed it up with 2014’s The Rover and has a film coming out later this year with Brad Pitt called War Machine. Michôd returns here to oversee the TNT television series based on the movie (which was itself based on the real-life Pettingill family of Melbourne). While the series doesn’t quite boast the film’s impressive level of talent, it does bring along Ellen Barkin, Scott Speedman (in the Edgerton role), Shawn Hatosy (in the Mendelsohn role), and Finn Cole (a standout in Peaky Blinders), who plays Joshua ‘J’ Cody in the series.

J is the entry point for Animal Kingdom. In the opening scene of the crime drama, J calls the police to report that his mother has overdosed with the indifference of a man who is unsurprised to see the slumped-over corpse of his mother draped over a couch. J’s next call is to his estranged grandmother, affectionately nicknamed Smurf (Ellen Barkin). He asks if he can move in with her family. Smurf, who is likewise unmoved by her own daughter’s death, casually responds in the affirmative, as though she were inviting him over for dinner instead of into her life.

When J arrives, he’s greeted by his uncles, who treat the death of his mother like a traffic ticket. “Aw, bummers” are shared before J is invited into a family he’s never known. He quickly learns that his grandmother, three uncles and a family friend are thieves and drug dealers. A reluctant J is quickly introduced to the business. As the pilot unfolds, he learns that — even for a family that earns a living stealing cars and robbing jewelry stores — there’s something decidedly off about the Cody clan.

For one, Smurf has an unusually creepy hold over her sons; to call it Freudian would be an understatement. An entrancing 62-year-old Ellen Barkin saunters around in provocative outfits, barks commands at her sons, and maintains an unsettling power over them. “I know what will make you feel better,” she says at one point to one of her sons, rubbing herself up against his groin. At another point, she consoles her crying, adult son as though he were an infant after he makes a mistake during a heist that cost his brother a gunshot wound. Meanwhile, one of the other brothers, Pope (Hatosy) is released from prison just as J moves in, and he brings with him an unsettling darkness and a rapey wandering eye that fixates on J’s girlfriend, Nicky (Molly Gordon).

The setup in the pilot is familiar to anyone who has seen the 2010 film, but the series is clearly playing a longer game here. We see the doe-eyed J pulled into the family business, but we’re still uncertain about whether the Cody family can trust J or vice versa. There’s goodness within him, and it remains to be seen whether the dark forces of his family will snuff it out or if he’ll manage to resist their influence and turn on them. (It’s a storyline not unfamiliar to Finn Cole from his work on Peaky Blinders.)

Barkin and Cole are unmistakably great. It’s the rest of family that remains the most intriguing and, so far, most frustrating element of the series. Barkin does a lot with a little, but the three sons are poorly drawn surfer thugs. Only Speedman’s Baz shows much in the way of a personality, and only he seems to have any sympathy for the situation that J has been put in.

There’s plenty of time, however, to develop the other characters. In fact, John Wells (E.R., Southland) — who directed the pilot and is one of the series’ producers– might have been wise to wait and introduce the black sheep brother, Pope, in the second or third episode, firmly establishing a family dynamic before moving Pope in to unsettle it.

Still, it’s a surprisingly good pilot, and it may be the best drama that TNT has yet produced. Granted, aside from attracting curious critics, there’s little brand value in the title (the original film only made $1 million at the box office in the U.S.), but the premise is ripe with possibilities. It boasts a strong cast, a compelling anti-hero family, and opportunities for frequent heists. Whether Animal Kingdom pays off on its promise or reverts to a caper-of-the-week format we might expect from a network like TNT remains to be seen, but the network may finally have a drama that can compete with basic cable’s prestige drama powerhouses, FX and AMC.

Animal Kingdom premieres tonight, June 14, at 9pm ET. You can watch the first episode online now.