Hit or Sh**: HBO’s ANIMALS
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Short-format animated content is almost always visually expressive, but rarely is it maturely profound to boot. HBO’s latest spin on genre conventions is the undeniably clever idea of crafting an ultra low-fi cartoon, compromising visual splendor for thought-provoking discourse on internal human struggles, all neatly packaged under the guise of an episodic anthology series chronicling the lives of Manhattan animals. Produced by the Duplass brothers, ANIMALS is mumblecore to the core, a show that audiences could close their eyes to and effortlessly envision the workings of a Baumbach or Linklater.
See, the genius of ANIMALS isn’t that it’s a cartoon, but its awareness that within its indie, live-action subgenre, the one thing nobody has been able to explore are narrative threads that aren’t bound by human life. In dialogue, protagonists voice their opinions just like any average joe, yet the circumstances of their narrative arc ‒ and what makes them unique as animals ‒ allow for plot threads that are endearing yet bolstered by an earnestness rarely seen in animation. It’s best compared to LOUIE if the show were to lean slightly more toward the millennial demographic, but it takes enough advantage of its format that it doesn’t feel like a cheap imitation.
In pilot episode “Rats” viewers follow their titular everyday rodents to a literal underground venue party, offering a painfully awkward commentary on the nihilism of nightlife culture. What starts as an episode that could surely be told within the constraints of live-action comedy quickly escalates into a hilariously profound discussion of “going to the bathroom and making babies,” a narrative beat that really only works because rats are born in a mere three weeks. From there, ANIMALS scores an absolute home run, neatly blending its low-budget aesthetic with some genuinely moving payoffs that allow for viewers to learn a thing or two about mortality and the value of waiting for a perfect romantic match.
The reductionist drawing style helps the quiet character frustrations constantly feel like hysterically relatable interior monologues and ultimately further ushers in the series’ mumblecore tone. However, perhaps ANIMALS greatest accomplishment is that despite its stark simplicity it’s also somehow the most refreshing animated television in years, channeling many of the best qualities from Don Hertzfeldt’s fantastic short film WORLD OF TOMORROW. Beautiful in meaning rather than aesthetic, ANIMALS is a joy to watch in the same minimalist way that THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW is.
“How did we get here? Smells like balls”
Through brief narrative vignettes that bridge the greater rat-themed narrative, viewers are also treated to a brief glimpse into the lives of NYPD horses and pubic lice. These segments aren’t necessarily intrusive on the primary storyline, but they do feel more like HBO’s alternative to ad-space rather than providing anything pertinent to the narrative. Nonetheless, they do provide a solid grasp on what future episodes will shape up to be, neatly using the unique quirks of their respective animals to draw naturalistic conversations out of the scenario. What is yet to be seen however is whether or not these anthology pieces will find a cohesive link.
Currently, all three vignettes in the pilot episode feature the blackmail of New York’s mayor on the periphery as a throughline. Extending a silent film narrative of extortion into the shows greater arc will surely provide further incentive to keep returning to these adorably pleasant 30 minute episodes, but for now ANIMALS has at least proven that it’s a novel concept that still has plenty of room left for exploration. If not for the quirky animals, at least come for all the brutally honest humanity.
ANIMALS airs on Fridays on HBO