Almost no one has heard of the animated series Animals. on HBO. The show returns for a second season on Friday, with about as little fanfare as is possible for a show on HBO. Seriously. Think of the way HBO promoted that far less interesting Sarah Jessica Parker show Divorce. Then think of the opposite of that: that’s what Animals. gets. Which is a shame, because it’s a pretty good show. And there’s got to be thousands of stoners out there wondering what to watch ever since Aqua Teen Hunger Force ended back in 2015, and this show is perfect for that, too.
That this show is even getting a second season, despite the lack of press, speaks volumes about its value considering the fact that HBO pulls the plug on almost every show that underperforms. Even the can-do-no-wrong Duplass brothers’ show Togetherness got canned after two short seasons. But Animals., which boasts the Duplass brothers as producers, is still plugging away and according to creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese, HBO is pretty much hands-off. And that’s apparent: the show is fucking nuts, but in a good way.
The premise of Animals. is not new: anthropomorphizing animals is as old as dirt. But Animals. somehow forces us to care about the trials and tribulations of these animal characters, likely because their concerns are so familiar. In the first episode of the first season, we see a rat regret his decision to bring paper plates to the party, get ditched by his friend, and lament his virginity. Pretty typical comedy tropes. And then audiences say,“Wait, that’s just like us humans, but with animals!” So that’s pretty much the point: what if the animals among us in New York City have the same boring conversations and trivial concerns as we do? So in an unfairly simplistic sense, it’s shittily drawn animals talking mundane bullshit. On Animals. the animals’ mouths don’t move, and that’s only because Mike and Phil didn’t know how to animate moving mouths (and thank God, because I am personally repulsed by artificially moving mouths- like in Baby Geniuses, the greatest travesty in cinema, but that’s not really relevant here). But it makes perfect sense in this show- the raw and unpolished animation fits perfectly to reflect the dirty as fuck nooks and crannies of the city that these animals call home, and works to focus our attention on the hilarious banter between the animals.
But the show goes way further and crazier than just replicating the inane minutiae of our human lives: the first season also sees a pigeon’s gender transition after mistaking a golf ball for an egg, a dog at a prison-resembling dog park experience anti-mutt racism, and two house cats plans for some BDSM with a stray. And that was just the first four episodes. And it’s that kind of bat-shit insanity that makes the show great.
I got the chance to speak with creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese who told me they structured each episode carefully. There is a main story, rats, for example, but there are secondary and even tertiary stories featured throughout. And there is one storyline that connects all of the episodes: that of the humans of the city. And while the animals discuss some very human problems, the people on the show rarely speak at all. Instead, they mostly make something resembling animalistic grunts. And somehow the street rats that lurk in the background are far less disgusting and far more complex than the humans.
The multiple stories within each episode do add extra layers of depth for sure. And the guys utilize the long story arc for the season primarily because they said they wanted the show to be serialized to a certain extent. Some characters, like the rats and pigeons, return for some episodes, but ultimately, Phil and Mike wanted a payoff to reward the viewers who watched all ten episodes of the show. But in an effort to flex different muscles of storytelling and provide a bit of high-tension drama to a mostly slow-burning show, they also see the humans as a necessary and inevitable component to their story, set in the supremely man-made NYC, that shines a light on creatures that they said, “have made hospitable environments for themselves… out of our sewage and our garbage.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the show, although likely pretty apparent, is that the dialogue is almost entirely improvised. And saying the roster of guest stars is impressive is a huge understatement. “We have a script for each episode that’s about twelve or fifteen pages or so, and we have the whole episode outlined and we’ll have a session of recording and even if we’re not characters in the scene, [we] are in the booth with the actors, rather than behind a pane of glass, and it kind of creates a fun environment for them to let loose… and so each take is a totally improvised take,” they said. The result is the “very organic, talky quality that stamps the show.” Well put.
So, the first season of Animals. featured some real heavy hitters as guest stars on the show: Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, Molly Shannon, Wanda Sykes, Kumail Nanjiani, Jenny Slate and so many more. Jessica Chastain even does some voice work on this show. And season two brings the likes of Fred Armisen, Whoopi Goldberg, Mindy Kaling and even RuPaul, along with returning voices from Lauren Lapkus, Jon Lovitz, and more. And if none of that works for you, they also have Khaleesi herself, Emilia Clarke, as some amalgamation of chewed up food, sawdust and rat feces, so that should do the trick. But from the horse’s mouth, season two is assuredly far “weirder than season one,” and Phil and Mike admit they “really swung for the fences on this one.” Considering just how weird season one was, two should be a real doozy.
So, you could say that Animals. relies too heavily on gross-out humor: there’s rat sex and pigeon sex and puke and steroids and rat poison. And yes, the joke is always and only, “like us, but they’re animals!”And you might make a case that the show sometimes falls back on the worst cliches of comedy: lack of success with the opposite sex, marital struggles, and the like. But I think that overlooks the somewhat surprisingly philosophical aspirations of the show. I mean, what is more ambitious than holding up a mirror to humans and forcing us to examine just how ridiculous and dull and bitter our lives are? And doing all that through the grossest creatures that live among us? That ain’t bad.