The following is a spoiler-free review for the first two episodes of Central Park Season 1, which is now streaming on Apple TV+.
For all of the money Apple has been pumping into its still-infant delivery service, we’ve yet to see many shows that radiate with enough creativity to pull our attention from Apple TV+’s more established competitors. Central Park, though, is one of those shows. It’s an animated comedy, which is nothing new in itself, but get this: It’s also a full-blown musical with all only a handful of spoken lines dropped before its cast bursts into songs about everything from superheroes to scooping poop.
Its art style is an instant tip-off that it’s from some of the same folks who gave us Bob’s Burgers, but Apple’s massive cash piles allow it to be animated with a fluidity we never saw in co-producer Loren Bouchard’s previous show. For one of the first times on Apple TV, here’s an example of Apple putting all that money to excellent use.
As in Bob’s Burgers, a lot of the action centers on a quirky family, in this case the family of Central Park manager Owen (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who lives in a sweet “castle” in the park’s heart. We also meet Paige, his journalist wife (Kathryn Hahn)—who works for “the number one most left-on-the-subway paper in the city,” his two kids (Kristen Bell and Tituss Burgess), and a lovable busker (Josh Gad) who creeps on them by peeping through their house’s windows. (It’s totally cool, he tells us; after all, he’s the narrator!)
Considering how many songs drop in each episode, I’m impressed by how catchy they are. It’s hard enough to come up with a single good musical episode — as The Magicians did so memorably in 2018 — but the two episodes I saw included everything from the showboating numbers expected from musicals to lightweight raps. Much of Central Park’s humor, in fact, comes from silly couplets like this: “Papa, I believe this puppy’s heaven-sent / I promise to pick up his every excrement.” Yes, in true Bob’s Burgers fashion, the poop jokes are as plentiful as gritty gum on Manhattan sidewalks.
Beyond that, the musical approach works so well because the actual singing is delightful, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as Kristen Bell famously voiced Frozen’s Anna, while Odom and Daveed Diggs (who plays a dour woman) established themselves in the hit musical Hamilton. Some of the songs are better than others — Bell’s “Weirdoes Make Good Superheroes” is an especially memorable standout — but none of them left me longing for everyone to start chatting normally again.
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It’s worth watching Central Park for the quality of its animation and its pun-laden musical numbers alone. It deserves critical attention, though, for the way it uses these elements to tackle important contemporary issues. Central Park tends to start with a foundation of familiar and comfortable concepts like teenage love and job dissatisfaction and then uses them to springboard into commentaries on the ways that, say, some of our most precious institutions exist only thanks to a fragile thread of legislation.
To its great credit, Central Park never knocks you over the head with these messages. Much as Apple TV+ did with its wonderful series Little America, it instead subtly communicates these ideas through empathy and shared experiences with the characters rather than through direct lecturing. The approach works more often than not.
In this era of social distancing and general uncertainty, Central Park also works as a powerful reminder of the importance and vitality of shared public spaces and, for that matter, the messy compromises we sometimes need to make in order for our communities to flourish. Sometimes, Central Park suggests, you simply have to deal with the fact that you’re going to have to pick up some trash. On the other hand, I admire that Central Park seems to be building to a conclusion that argues that some things shouldn’t be compromised.
If there’s one thing that almost all of Apple TV+ shows have had in common until this point, it’s that they take a couple of episodes to put the pieces in place and then the really good episodes — the ones that leave the best impressions — drop later in the season. Based on the two episodes of Central Park available at premiere, that’s true of this series, too. The difference is that few of Apple TV+’s shows have pulled off that approach so successfully, to the point that I’m now eager to see what Bouchard and his buddies have in store for us for the next few Fridays going forward. This is a beautiful and rewatchable setup, filled as much with heart as it is with scatological jokes. It’s also optimistic, and right now, that’s a welcome gift.