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HBO’s Animals Is the Best TV Comedy You’re Not Watching

Still from Animals. Photo: HBO

What would you say if I told you HBO was currently airing a TV series featuring performances from RuPaul, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Kumail Nanjiani, Ellie Kemper, Jenny Slate, Emilia Clarke, Nick Kroll, Jon Lovitz, January Jones, Pauly Shore, Adam Pally, Harmony Korine, John Early, Dan Harmon, Robert Morse, Wanda Sykes, Ben Schwartz, Judy Greer, Raven-Symoné, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Usher, Jason Alexander, Lauren Lapkus, Alia Shawkat, Molly Shannon, Jason Mantzoukas, Cobie Smulders, and Andy Richter, among others? What if I told you it featured musical performances from Killer Mike, Big Boi, Kurt Vile, Ty Segall, A$AP Rocky, and A$AP Ferg? And what if I told you it was one of the funniest, most idiosyncratic shows on television?

If you would say, “Bullshit, I think I’d know about that,” then bzzzzzzt, wrong answer. If you would say, “Oh, sure, you’re talking about Animals,” then bravo, you’re one of the brave few who is watching an animated comedy that garners a weekly viewership of less than 300,000 people, losing out in Friday ratings to the 2 a.m. rerun of The O’Reilly Factor and something called Texas Flip and Move. It’s a little astounding that this show — a deliciously clever series of vignettes about the creatures that populate New York City — has flown so low under the radar. It is, to deploy a much-abused bit of critical verbiage, the best comedy you’re not watching.

Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of star power behind the scenes. Animals (technically styled as the period-including “Animals.” but we’ll eschew that punctuation here for clarity’s sake) is the brainchild of Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, two newcomers to entertainment who hopped over from working at an ad agency. The prototype version of the show came in the form of shorts that Matarese and Luciano created on nights and weekends, evolved into two episodes that they screened at Sundance in 2015, and then flowered into a full-on HBO series produced by the Duplass Brothers last year. Matarese and Luciano are the only people whose voices appear in every episode, and they don’t have much name-brand value. Yet.

That could and should change, as they’ve created something that’s accessible to pretty much everyone. The basic premise of Animals is quite simple: Each half-hour episode comprises little skits starring anthropomorphic animals, like pigeons, rats, and dogs. The bits are sometimes stand-alone, but more often than not, they comprise running stories throughout a given episode. Characters recur in multiple episodes, but you never need prior knowledge — any given installment works on its own.

Each of the two seasons has had a meta-narrative about the humans of the world engaging in some silly business involving political scandals and sinister corporations, but that stuff is hardly the point. The closely observed riffs on the ways we talk and interact with one another are why Animals is worth watching. Speaking of watching: The animation is astoundingly low-budget, consisting of figures that often remain static for seconds at a time, before moving a single wing or paw to create emphasis. The drawings are just this side of crude outsider art, like the work of a decently talented sixth-grader. Its doodle-y aesthetic makes South Park look like the world’s most elaborate anime.

None of these statements are criticisms. Indeed, the DIY nature of Animals is a huge part of its charm. This isn’t a show that’s trying overly hard to impress you with its technical achievements; the visuals are there primarily to give you something to look at while you listen to the charmingly loose and surprisingly subtle vocal performances. The victory, of course, is in the casting: Matarese and Luciano, presumably with the help of the Duplasses, have been able to get just about everyone who’s hot in our current era of comedy, and they unfailingly turn in top-notch performances.

Take, for example, the season-one episode “Turkeys.” It opens with a close-up on the waddled face of a turkey, played by Danny McBride, who begins to growl out narrative voice-over in the mode of late-period Stallone or Neeson. “There is no God,” he says, eliciting a heart-smile due to the fact that it’s McBride saying it. “All there is, is pain. Ever since they took her.” What follows is a surprisingly thrilling and endlessly delightful revenge saga, in which the turkey seeks to kill the mayor of New York City for picking him, and not his turkey bride, as his annual turkey pardon, leading to the Thanksgiving murder of the lady turkey. By the time this poorly animated McBride-bird absurdly holds a pistol in his wing and aims it at the mayor in a collapsed parade float, your mouth will be agape, in awe of the pitch-perfect and mildly absurdist action-satire.

Or revel in this season’s “Rats,” where we see rats named Phil and Mike (played by, well, Phil and Mike) struggle with life in a lab, where they’re fed green pills that make them imagine that a pile of feces and wood chips is their female roommate, with whom they both fall in love. (They eventually overcome the hypnotic drugs by remembering their shared, pre-lab love of the band 311.) Or chow down on smaller bits like the one where Cobie Smulders and Wanda Sykes play horses, the former of whom is afraid to pee in public, and the latter of whom encourages her to just let it flow. Or groove to the music video where A$APs Rocky and Ferg do a track about the lives of bodega cats. And we haven’t even gotten into the live-action episode where RuPaul plays the mad-scientist head of a company called Pesci Corp (Matarese and Luciano are, for whatever reason, obsessed with Joe Pesci).

In other words, imagine Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist by way of Comedy Bang! Bang! — with the earnest heart and charm of early New Girl or late Parks and Recreation — and you’ll have a decent sense of what it is to experience Animals. The gags work, the characters work, the music works, and none of it feels hackneyed or stale. It goes down smooth, and always fills a viewer with glee. (Its fowls are foul, though, so put the kids to bed before watching.) It’s an absolute shame that more people aren’t watching, because we harried humans could really use the furry and winged comfort of its wonderful comedic menagerie.

HBO’s Animals Is the Best TV Comedy You’re Not Watching