Animal Kingdom is a glossy TV series available on TNT, an amoral spectacle that traffics in the excesses it pretends to denounce. The show is based on a similarly titled Australian movie about a family of criminals ruled by a fierce, viciously manipulative matriarch. In the American series, Ellen Barkin plays the matriarch, called "Smurf" by her adoring sons. Barkin's asymmetrical smirk and black expressionless pinpoint eyes give her a vaguely reptilian appearance -- although she professes love for all, calls her grown boys "sweetie," and, often, smooches with them, her affection seems cold, strategic, the caress of a cobra. Barkin has aged and her features seem taut, possibly immobilized by plastic surgery, and she shows a lot of her Betty Boop figure in the series -- the characters live in some surfside California suburb (possibly Long Beach or Venice) and they spend a lot of time at the beach or poolside in skimpy bathing suits. Smurf is a grotesque caricature of a kind of mother that everyone has encountered: she purchases the affection of her children with lavish gifts and controls her boys with in a way that is clearly incestuous -- each of Smurf's four sons seems to think that he is her special lover and that she is romantically inclined toward him: this is her mechanism of control. Smurf is also an "enabler" par excellence -- she smokes dope with her boys, one of whom is severely addicted to various drugs, provides a constant supply of booze, purchases extravagant and dangerous entertainment for the boys (they go surfing all the time, ride their skateboards with dangerous abandon, skydive and engage in paint-gun duels), and vets their girlfriends for sexual inventiveness. When the boys misbehave, she withholds her favors. Although all four of her sons have their own picturesque seaside pads, they spend the majority of their time hanging out in Smurf's luxurious compound, lounging around her pool with half-naked hussies, and getting loaded. Needless to say, none of the boy's girlfriends can hold a candle to Smurf for seductiveness and, when one of the women defies her, she casually terrorizes her rival by kidnapping the woman's baby. At the heart of all this depravity is the family enterprise: the four boys comprise a criminal gang, apparently specializing in high-end burglary. The engine that runs the show's plot are the various crimes that the Smurf plans and that her boys commit -- in the first episode, an assault on a expensive jewelry store leads to one of the boys being shot and a security guard dying. This crime is too impressive to go without notice and the merchandise (mostly watches) is too hot to be fenced -- Smurf orders the watches melted down, although her grandson gives one of the stolen items to his girlfriend, probably a dire mistake. The injured son's wound festers and he has to be taken to Tijuana for surgery -- a plot turn that reveals that the oldest boy, Bas, who is married, has a Mexican girlfriend with whom he engages in photogenic sex. One of the boys, a handsome surfer dude, is gay, although he conceals this fact from his mother. When a member of the family stumbles into a public toilet where that son is getting a blow-job from his boyfriend, the surfer turns on his lover and beats him to a pulp to preserve the fiction that he is straight. The fourth son, who may not be Smurf's biological progeny, is nicknamed Pope. Pope has just been released from a three-year term in prison and is obviously damaged goods -- he scowls at everyone, sits motionlessly for hours, and takes out his aggressions by smashing things up in the backyard with a sledge hammer. Pope is a very scary and volatile character, the most remarkable in the ensemble, and he provides a sinister edge to proceedings that might otherwise be a little too rich and generously endowed in pandering to wish fulfillment fantasies of the viewers. This carousing all looks like a lot of fun but Pope is lurking at the edges of the action and you have the sense that he is a ticking time bomb about to blow-up.
The audience enters the subculture of this family through the eyes of a naïf. Smurf's grandson, Jay, literally provides us with access to the narrative -- we first see him expressionless, sitting on a couch, next to his heroin-addicted mother who happens to be dead from an overdose. After his mother's death, he wanders over to Smurf's compound where everyone is half-naked, drinking bloody Mary's and smoking dope, a crowd of bikini-clad girls in the swimming pool. Needless to say, he is seduced by Smurf's charm and the generosity of his uncles and becomes involved in the criminal activities of the family. As the plot develops, Jay proves to be a weak spot in the family's unity -- he is not as fanatically devoted to Smurf as his hapless uncles and there is a kindly teacher at his high school who has taken an interest in him, indeed, apparently to an inordinate degree since the young woman invites him to encounters that only be called dates and lets him kiss her. (In an ugly, but realistic plot turn, we learn that Jay's teacher is herself a drug addict who has been turned into a snitch by a relentless female detective and that she is, in fact, using the boy to provide information to the cops.) Jay has a girlfriend and the scene in which Smurf puts on her pearls and entertains the girlfriend's ultra-straight family at her compound is both hilarious and frightening -- Smurf's charm approaches the level of the monstrous: the girl has been sleeping over at the house with Jay and the dinner party's objective is to persuade her parents that this has been innocent, is okay, and should be allowed to continue. Smurf succeeds with this project, in fact, too well -- her oldest son decides that he will use this opportunity to convert the girl's father, a blustery miles glorioso army officer, to the family's criminal enterprises. The main plot line is supported by dozen of so subplots, all of them reasonably compelling, and it is clear that the writers and makers of this series intend to continue into future seasons -- each episode plants the seed for another couple of subplots to be developed in the future: the family's back story, in particular, is unclear and we don't know why Smurf's boys, with the exception of the two furry surfer dudes, all look so different. Of course, they have different fathers and my suspicion is that one or two of them may be adopted. (I have known families of this general kind and they always have people living in their household without blood affiliation, but being "fostered" to use a term from old Norse and Icelandic sagas -- that is living with the family on the basis of some alliance or in recompense for some obscure indebtedness.) I suspect that these elements of the narrative will be developed in future episodes -- as it is, there are a number of mystifying elements in the plot that await clarification. With its proliferating subplots and expanding inventory of characters, the show resembles The Sopranos -- in fact, a comparison can be made between Tony Soprano's ghastly charm and Smurf's apparently endless capacity to manipulate people. I suspect that the film tends toward the same central irony: a group of people proclaim family to be the ultimate value, but, in the end, must act together to murder a member of the very family that they assert to be so important.
Upon watching Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, Marlene Dietrich is reported to have mourned the transformation of the beast into the handsome, if conventional-looking, prince with the words "Bring me back my beautiful beast." Animal Kingdom contains hints that it will provide a backstory, probably something maudlin about child abuse, to explain Smurf's motivations and psychology. (There is scene in which Smurf, ever the shapeshifter, sexually seduces a female photographer, apparently, to secure information about a surfer shown in one of her pictures -- it seems that Smurf is prosecuting some kind of enigmatic revenge, but this is unclear in the first six episodes of the show that I have seen.) Providing a backstory for Smurf is wholly unnecessary and will be destructive to the series. Smurf is a sacred monster, a powerful, charismatic and frightening being -- the power of the show is that we all recognize the character as an alarming, archetype of a one sort of maternal love. To provide her with a childhood and sentimental reasons for her smothering and feral attachment to her sons is an exercise in puerile psychologizing that will, I'm afraid, seriously weaken the show. No one tells us about Lady Macbeth's childhood and we don't need to be privy to secrets of Smurf's soul -- it's enough for us to watch her machinations.