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Tuned In: Dark drama and dysfunctional family in TNT’s ‘Animal Kingdom’

POST-GAZETTE.COM – TNT’s “Southland” offered a deep dive into the working lives of Southern California patrol cops. In the dark and moody “Animal Kingdom” (9 and 10 p.m. Tuesday), TNT turns its attention to a Southern California family of surfers who are also criminals.

Both series hail from executive producer John Wells, a Carnegie Mellon University grad, and writer Jonathan Lisco, and both put an emphasis on character over plot. But it was easier to get into “Southland” where the lead characters, though flawed, usually were trying to do the right thing.

In “Animal Kingdom,” not to be confused with Disney’s theme park in Florida that uses the same name, the lead characters are all, to varying degrees, jerks. There is one exception: Young Joshua (Finn Cole), the first character viewers meet on the day his mother overdoses and dies.

Joshua is the grandson of Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin, fierce as ever), the manipulative, unpredictable matriarch of the Cody crime family. Joshua’s mother tried to get him away from the Cody clan, but her death sends him back into Smurf’s arms, which also leads him to get reacquainted with his four uncles, including his mother’s dangerous twin brother, Pope (Shawn Hatosy, playing a hothead again just like he did on “Southland”).

Smurf’s other sons include Baz (Scott Speedman, “Felicity”), seemingly the most sane of the bunch and Smurf’s chief lieutenant in their criminal enterprise, druggie Craig (Ben Robson) and the youngest, Deran (Jake Weary), who’s hiding a secret from his family until Joshua stumbles upon it.

The first hour of “Animal Kingdom” plays heavily on character and also introduces a running plot about a jewelry heist that goes bad. The consequences of that robbery hang over future episodes.

The show’s robbery angle and the testosterone-driven action sequences bring to mind Mr. Wells’ short-lived 2006 CBS heist drama, “Smith,” which shot its pilot episode in Pittsburgh. But with the emphasis on one family, “Animal Kingdom” is more grounded in characters. They’re an unsavory bunch and after the first hour it seemed likely I wouldn’t willingly stick with the series but after hour two, the show made me curious to see what would come next.

“Animal Kingdom,” based on a 2010 Australian film of the same title, won’t be to everyone’s taste, but fans of dark, family criminal enterprise shows (think: “Sons of Anarchy,” “Outsiders”) might be intrigued.

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