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matt zoller seitz

Seitz on NBC’s Animal Practice: More Monkey, Please

ANIMAL PRACTICE -- "Pilot" -- Pictured: (l-r) Kym Whitley as Juanita, Joanna Garcia Swisher as Dorothy Crane, Justin Kirk as George Coleman -- (Photo by: Neil Jacobs/NBC)

NBC's new veterinary comedy Animal Practice is brain candy, and generic candy at that, but what you've heard is true: the monkey kills.

I don't mean literally, though if that were the case, wouldn't it be awesome? I mean comedically. Named Dr. Rizzo and played by Crystal, the scene-stealer from The Hangover Part II (as well the simian who plays Annie’s Boobs on Community), the monkey is the sidekick to the show's hero, George Coleman (Justin Kirk). Their relationship makes Coleman a lot more bearable than he might be otherwise. The good doctor is the umpteenth variation on Hugh Laurie's House and other sarcastic grouch heroes: an autocrat, womanizer, and pontificator who secretly Cares Very Deeply and is so good at his job that his co-workers don't seem to mind being constantly insulted by him.

While Coleman struts around the hospital delivering anecdotes about animal biology, telling everyone How It's Gonna Be, and locking horns with the new hospital owner, Dorothy (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) — a woman who happens to be George's ex-lover — Dr. Rizzo trails along mimicking his movements like Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films or skitters around in the background acting like, well, a really tiny, very hairy doctor. He even has scrubs and a clipboard. Kirk underplays so deftly that you accept that this sort of thing would be allowed and that everyone in the place views Dr. Rizzo as just another co-worker. New rule: Every show built around a brooding, cranky asshat whom everyone tolerates because he's The Best should be required to cast a lovable monkey sidekick, including the CSIs.

The hospital is supposedly the top animal hospital in the city, a strange assertion given what's onscreen. George and his staffers screw around a lot when nobody's looking, betting on horses and staging races between tortoises ridden by gerbils (all of which calls into question the premise that George truly loves animals, but whatever, it's the kind of series where you aren't supposed to trouble yourself with internal consistency). The arrival of Dorothy as top boss upends the status quo; she wants to make changes, and George isn't big on change. And do I even need to inform you that George and Dorothy have a Sam-and-Diane, will-they-or-won't-they dynamic? I don't? Well, either way, NBC's got you covered via an "audience surrogate" character, Betsy Sodaro's ex-convict, who identifies TV clichés as they appear. ("Sexy tension!" she exclaims, watching George and Dorothy fight.)

I realize I'm making this show sound dreadful. It isn't. It's knowingly dumb and aiming for smart-dumb, and over time it might get there. The cast is appealing — particularly Kirk, who manages to hold his own against the monkey, no mean feat — and if you accept that the situations are occurring in something more like a Green Acres or Petticoat Junction universe than an ER one (not that it's as good as any of those shows), it's not without charm. Even the overdone touches are brazen enough to amuse, such as the shot of the hospital waiting room packed with pet owners and a Noah's Ark array of creatures, including a peahen and a boar. I can see someone watching Animal Practice at the end of a long day and laughing just enough to justify not changing the channel.

NBC’s Animal Practice previews Sunday night at 10:30 p.m. and starts its regular run September 26.

Photo: Neil Jacobs/NBC