The scuzzy members of the seaside SoCal crime family on TNT’s Animal Kingdom are hideous hyenas. They play all day in the backyard watering hole, they laze around the den all night snorting, smoking, and screwing, and when hunger calls, they scavenge and steal to sustain their wanton way of life. The lioness who leads these four mangy man-cubs is named Smurf, but she’s no cream-puff cartoon. Played by Ellen Barkin in a wise and lusty turn, Smurf is materfamilias as frayed hustler. She controls her combustible kids with steel, sweetness, and flirty wiles, from spoiling them with cupcakes and iPhones to making them utterly dependent on her for livelihood and affection. Maybe even that kind of affection. She complicates their regard with provocative dress, she manipulates them to compete for her grace and gaze. Watching Smurf ogle her hard-bodied boys as they frolick bare-assed is one of summer TV’s most subversive spectacles.
A surfboard Sons of Anarchy adapted from an acclaimed 2010 Aussie flick, Animal Kingdom lives at the intersection of Polished Cable Pulp and Who Cares? The performances are good enough to enliven the antihero familiarity. Beyond Barkin, Scott Speedman is strong as clearheaded Baz, the family’s field general, and Shawn Hatosy is even better as cracked Pope, newly sprung from jail, desperate to regain his high place in Smurf’s sick pocket universe. The true center, for now, is Smurf’s teenage grandson, J (Finn Cole), who tumbles into her underworld at a moment of crisis and struggles to survive all his awful alpha-male uncles. Does J embrace this dehumanizing thrill-ride life? Does he seek something better? His choice is also yours. B