About halfway through the first episode of the new HBO animated series, Animals., most viewers will probably have the same thought. Yes, this is a cartoon about urban creatures living in New York who experience all-too human emotional conundrums like longing, regret and loneliness. But it’s also a cartoon very much about animals. Not humans, animated or otherwise, but animals. Rats, pigeons and dogs suffering from the same problems that plague human twenty- and thirtysomethings in Brooklyn. How the hell does that even make any sense?
I raise this point not to suggest any fault with co-creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese‘s new show. (Anthropomorphizing animals for the purpose of human entertainment is as old as storytelling itself. See, also: the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. animation, etc.) I bring it up because it’s precisely why Animals. excels at roping the audience in to the everyday concerns encountered by the characters who populate each episode’s vignettes. Be they rats looking for love, a pigeon suddenly gifted with a new life, or a dog forced into an uncomfortable social situation, the scenarios that make up Animals. are both familiar and easy to understand. Which is surprising, given that they’re tied to rats trying to “make babies,” a pigeon whose gender transition is triggered by a golf ball mistaken for an egg, and a papillon who encounters racism (i.e. anti-mutt sentiments) at a prison-like dog park. The ridiculousness of it all is what makes the show work its magic. (Not to mention the fact that we adore things like pizza rat.)
Every half hour of Animals. follows a basic structure meant to convey the episode’s particular stories while connecting everything together in the same world. Consider the premiere episode, “Rats.” A dialogue-free narrative involving a shady New York mayor and a dead woman in a cheap hotel room begins and interrupts the story of two rats named Mike and Phil. Voiced by Luciano and Matarese, respectively, the rodents witness the aforementioned shadiness while discussing a party happening later that night. Phil is a bit of a recluse, but Mike manages to convince him to go out — provided he doesn’t abandon Phil halfway through the evening. Of course, things wouldn’t get awkward unless Mike did abandon Phil to go off and make babies with a nice lady rat, which is exactly what happens. In Mike’s absence, another rat named Fink (Jason Mantzoukas) offers Phil his brief advice for picking up women, which involves taking one of the discarded “blue pills” he found on the floor and trying to sleep with as many female rats as possible.
Meanwhile, a tertiary story involving two police horses (Paul Scheer and Matt Walsh) unfolds in between the background mayor-kills-woman-during-sex narrative that underpins the comings and goings (or lack thereof) of rats Mike and Phil. While the body of the dead woman is transferred into an ambulance, the horses discuss an ex-colleague’s successful move into the racing circuit. A little later, before the third act, another interlude offers a brief but extremely personal look
into onto the mayor via two motel bedbugs (Mark Duplass and Rob Corddry) who’ve hitched a ride. “Well holy sh*t this is incredible,” one of them says. The other agrees and remarks, “This is so nice.” (They’re in his crotch, by the way.)
As the human drama unfolds, the rats, horses and bedbugs’ own adventures branch off from it and occasionally pass one another by. Per the episode title, Mike and Phil’s story remains the centerpiece for the entire half hour, though the larger subject of being (or becoming) comfortable with oneself runs throughout every vignette. While Phil is too late comes to terms with the idea that he doesn’t have to be somebody else in order to meet someone to procreate with, the horses’ conversation reveals that — despite the accolades of others — one’s own accomplishments are enough. That’s true even when, as the bedbugs’ back-and-forth reveals, these personal strengths are often tested by life itself.
That’s pretty deep material for a late-night HBO cartoon about rats trying to screw one another, horses forming a suicide pact, and bedbugs enjoying the sweet, sweet taste of their human’s Hepatitis B-riddled blood, no? Getting the story design right for the premiere episode and the nine entries that follow this season was very important to Luciano and Matarese. The pair co-wrote all 10 scripts in consultation with executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass, who took them in after their original shorts earned high praise at the New York Television Festival. Obviously, the co-creators owe much of the show’s pre-air attention to the Duplass brothers, whose influence is all over the final product, from the general do-it-yourself approach, to the staggering amount of voice talent — including the brothers, Jon Lovitz, Lauren Lapkus, Aziz Ansari, Wanda Sykes and many, many more.
Yet Animals. is very much a Luciano and Matarese production, and a good one at that. Their combined voice makes a unique contribution to HBO’s current line-up, one as concerned with human hang-ups as the often disgusting habits of the animals around them. It’s almost like the Netflix series, Master of None, but animated with the very creatures whose poop ruined Dev’s shoes in the “Ladies and Gentleman” episode. Poop aside, that’s good company.
Animals. premieres tonight, Feb. 5 at 11:30 p.m. ET on HBO. Until then, here’s a preview.