There are a few basic necessities Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin) won’t be seen without: her ultra-chic platinum-blonde bob, a push-up bra, and a bullion’s worth of gold jewelry. Naturally, she sports all three while striding into her dead daughter’s apartment to collect her estranged teenage grandson, J (Finn Cole). The next morning, all three accessories are on display while Smurf cheerfully makes smoothies for her brawny brood of four, soon to be five. J has come to live with his criminal clan at exactly the wrong time: just as things are about to fall apart.
Premiering tonight in a two-hour series launch, Animal Kingdom centers on the rare matriarch of a felonious family. Based on the acclaimed historical 2010 Australian film that garnered Jacki Weaver the first of her two Oscar nominations, the California-set TNT drama is tense, stylish, surprising, and thoroughly auspicious. Smurf automatically demands our attention as the kind of powerful, older, maternal, yet confidently hypersexual female figure we seldom see, but showrunner Jonathan Lisco is generous with all of his cast. In between heists, youngest brother Deran (Jake Weary) struggles — sometimes with his fists — to keep his true sexuality under wraps, while the Codys’ unofficial sibling, Baz (Scott Speedman) — who might be Smurf’s favorite — muddles through a relationship with his baby mama, Cath (Daniella Alonso). You can practically smell the sweat glistening on the tanned backs and tatted biceps of the four thirtysomething surfer thugs from their efforts to prove their manhood, whether it be by jumping into the pool off the roof or not-so-graciously offering coke and heroin to J’s girlfriend (Molly Gordon) with Smurf’s serene approval.
Haunting the Codys’ sunny, gated home are the show’s best assets: the ghosts of crimes and transgressions past. J sees signs of their presence as soon as he arrives at Smurf’s house: On the kitchen counter lie several stacks of hundred-dollar bills, practically begging to have their origin story told. Newly paroled oldest brother Pope (Shawn Hatosy) sounds more than wistful when he mentions that he and J’s drug-addicted mother — his twin sister — occasionally slept in the same bed. (The psychiatrically disturbed Pope is revealed in the first three episodes to also have boundary issues with his relatives’ girlfriends.) But Pope’s not alone; no one else in the family seems to be bothered by the quasi-incestuous air suffusing Smurf’s home. Mama Cody kisses all her boys on the lips, and she lovingly massages one’s bare back as he snorts coke off the living room table.
The beginning of the end for the Codys appears to be the accidental murder of a cop during a violent robbery in the pilot. (Unlike so many of the elegant heists we’re used to seeing onscreen, the Codys are brutes, spraying broken glass all around them.) But Animal Kingdom’s most promising development isn’t the Codys’ disintegration, but how the family came to be who they are under Smurf’s tutelage and iron control. She’s bred enough resentment among her sons that her middle child, Craig (Ben Robson), brattily treats his bullet wound from that fatal robbery with off-prescription Oxy in a self-defeating act of rebellion — until infection threatens to consume him whole. And Smurf’s protection of J from her sons’ distrust earns her even more rancor from below.
The film’s weakest link is J’s conflicted passivity. The character isn’t much more active here, but he’s smarter, reacting self-defensively to the barreling cannonballs — and literal anchors underwater — that are the overmuscled man-children now determining (and occasionally imperiling) his life. In this hyper-macho fraternity, where every game doubles as a threat, J transforms into that most dangerous — and often the least wanted — person in the family: the repository of secrets. Even as he realizes the danger, it’s a transfiguration the wide-eyed boy can’t resist.