New York City needs its parks in any summer, but never more than now. Shared spaces of play, sun, respite and peace (and yes, conflict and judgement) are reminders in a time of distancing that we are all in this together.
Likewise, ‘Central Park’ is the show we need right now, even if its makers couldn’t have anticipated how and why. It arrived on Apple TV Plus, and it’s as well-timed as the Mister Softee truck on a 95-degree scorcher.
This weird, warm, joyful animated sitcom about a park manager and his family, living in Manhattan’s teeming, landscaped backyard, would be a cool treat at any time. In pandemic season, it’s more: a fun, full-throated tribute to public space and the people (and dogs and rats) who share it.
‘Central Park’ is created by Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith of ‘Bob’s Burgers’, along with Josh Gad, and it shares several elements with that stalwart Fox sitcom — above all, a fondness for eccentric obsessives with small-scale big dreams.
Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom Jr) loves the park the way his forebear Bob loves hamburgers, with a consuming, dorky-dad passion not always shared by the tulip-trampling masses. Central Park is his life — he even lives there, in a ramshackle “castle” that may have once been a storage shed, with his wife, Paige (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter with “the No 1 most-left-on-the-subway paper in the city,” and his kids, Molly (Kristen Bell) and Cole (Tituss Burgess).
It’s a theoretically idyllic life, made a little less so by the everyday stresses of work and budgets, and the fellow citizens who use the park as a gym, a dance floor and occasionally a restroom.
The whole urban sweep, majestic greenery and grand architecture seen from above, jeers and hot-dog water up close, is laid out in the opening song — oh, did I mention that ‘Central Park’ is a full-on musical, and a legitimately good one? Where ‘Bob’s’ sprinkles its episodes with brief, gamely sung ditties,
‘Central Park’ features several numbers per half-hour, most of them from the staff composers, Kate Anderson, Elyssa Samsel and Brent Knopf. (Other songwriters include Sara Bareilles, of ‘Waitress,’ who contributes a showstopper to the second episode.)
Beyond the cast’s musical pedigree — including Odom and Daveed Diggs of ‘Hamilton,’ as well as Bell and her ‘Frozen’ co-star Gad, who plays an overeager busker-narrator — the clever, replay-worthy songs drive the narrative. The centrepiece of the pilot, ‘Own It,’ gives each Tillerman a personal nerd anthem while also introducing the series’ villain, Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), a hotel magnate who wants to privatise the park.
Fans of ‘Bob’s’ will notice some DNA in common, from its love of a good scatological joke to the character types. There is a bit of Tina Belcher in Molly, who draws superhero comics starring herself (her imagined superpower, being able to rewind time, represents the universal teen wish to do-over awkward moments) and moons over a secret crush. There is a good deal of Gene Belcher in Cole, who develops his own crush on Bitsy’s pampered dog.
But ‘Central Park’ has a scope and scale of its own. Visually, it’s a polished uptown cousin to the down-the-shore ‘Bob’s.’ Narratively, it builds a serial plot around Bitsy’s supervillain scheme, along with episodic stories like one about Owen’s fear of public speaking. (“Guess it’s something I could work on/Like that guy helped Colin Firth on.”)
Setting up the long game slows down the first episode, but the series builds in the four episodes screened for critics, powered by goofy, good-hearted humour. It has ideas and ideals, but it wears them lightly and keeps the messages to a minimum. The Tillermans, for instance, are a biracial family, but at least early on this goes unmentioned, unlike in recent comedies like ‘mixed-ish’ and ‘Florida Girls.’ (The voice casting is cross-racial and cross-gender, with Bell playing the biracial Molly and Diggs playing Bitsy’s put-upon henchwoman, Helen.)
Mostly the promise of ‘Central Park’ is in its celebration of the public commons and civic services. (In the fourth episode, Owen duets with a waste-transfer-station manager about their respective duties.) This is one more TV show that has new resonance in the pandemic era, but for once that relevance is delightful, not depressing.
‘Central Park’ makes its setting a stand-in for urban life — all the jostling out-and-aboutness that stay-at-home orders have temporarily suppressed — its chaos and its messy democracy. You can, like Owen, beautify it and heroically clean up the trash. But you can never totally control it, because then it would stop being what it is.
You can’t tame the city. We can only own it, together.
Don’t miss it!
‘Central Park’ is streaming on Apple TV Plus.