The premise of Animals, HBO’s new half-hour animated dark comedy, co-executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, satisfies a deep collective fantasy that is generally the exclusive province of New Yorker cartoons: what if, the show asks, the animals of New York City were having all the same dumb conversations and inane insecurities as the rest of us? What if all of us, the subway rats and the subway commuters, are basically identical, except for species, and in every corner of the city, some neurotic animal is obsessing about whether it is stupid or clever to bring paper plates to a party. (“Nobody ever thanks the plate guy,” observes the rat, accurately. Who among us has not been the plate guy?)
This is the joke of Animals: take human banter, and map it onto crudely animated non-humans. And so a subway rat worries about being the only rat he knows who hasn’t “made babies” yet. A young Irish setter confesses a very personal secret to her dog-walking group. A moth pretends to get high off of a neon light to fit in with his cooler, druggier friends. A bedbug recovering from a divorce defends his inadvisable antennae piercing. Animals: they’re just like us.
I should say here: I have an unusually high tolerance for animals dopily navigating human situations. It is a joke I never get tired of, even when it is objectively tiresome. (Ask my dog.) And so it is perhaps from a somewhat biased place when I say that Animals is at its best when it focuses on the quotidian angst of its characters. Two police horses gossiping about a mutual acquaintance (“Thoroughbred racing? That guy?”) don’t do anything to move the plot forward. Neither does the bedbug having a midlife crisis. The joke is pretty much: look, these talking animals are sad, neurotic, and haunted by their own mediocrity. That’s it. Animals behaving like people with low-grade depression. And to be clear, that’s a great joke.
I don’t know if existential musings on horseliness, or pigeonhood, or catdom, could be sustainable for the half-hour that Animals runs. I do know that the show’s creators don’t seem to think so. Each episode, starring creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese as a different pair of animals (also named Mike and Phil), and supported by an endless-seeming roster of comedy regulars (Ellie Kemper, Zach Woods, Rob Corddry, Aziz Ansari, Wanda Sykes, Lauren Lapkus, Adam Scott, Nathan Fielder, both Duplass brothers, and a bunch of other familiar voices that are fun to identify), is powered by its own, violence-tinged plot. They start with promise (an alley cat asks a pair of posh, vaguely incestuous indoor cats if he might use their litter box; a male pigeon mistakes an errant golf ball for an egg), and then, in what seems like a spirited embrace of Yes-Anding, tend to go somewhat off the rails (feline torture; avian gender dysmorphia). It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that a lot of the show’s strongest jokes come from fleeting diversions – they’re subtler, and ultimately more rewarding, than the primary plots.
To have a show called Animals driven by sex and fixated on death is probably accurate, in some Darwinian scheme. (And isn’t everything, really, about one or the other?) But while it may be hard out there for a rat, or a cat, or a Papillon, the show’s particular brand of defiant crudeness can feel, at worst, less like a statement and more like middle school. There is vomit, there are pigeon steroids, and there is a lot of not-altogether-pleasant rat sex. It’s not that a show can’t or shouldn’t be crass; it’s that, in general, this particular show is funnier when it isn’t. Comedy is subjective, but I’d argue – maybe prudishly – that the existential sadness of a caterpillar who has not yet metamorphosed into a butterfly is significantly more satisfying than watching a rat decay from poison while begging a young lady-rat to sit on his face.
As fantastical as the plots get, though, the show’s social dynamics remain painfully familiar. As a series about anthropomorphized animals, Animals is in a position to make up literally whatever reality it wants – at the risk of stating the extremely obvious, we don’t actually know how rats might behave at a party. And so it’s frustrating that so often Animals chooses to lean into the dullest clichés of modern comedy. A male rat obsesses about his virginity while his buddy gets the rat ladies; a pigeon wife harangues her pigeon husband. Occasionally, the show uses the animals as a warped satirical mirror to comment on human behavior. More often, it’s the same old clichés, but this time, with fish. The tagline of Animals is “unexpected tales of urban life.” Right now, despite Animals’ quirky premise, it feels like we’ve seen an awful lot of these tales before.