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.