Animal Kingdom was suggested to me by the lovely and awesome mjennings, with a small caveat: it was just a few episodes into its first season, and it looked like it might need a while to find its legs. But, with Ellen Barkin as its lead, I figured it was definitely worth the patience. Having just finished binge-watching the entire first season, I’m not really sure if it has found its rhythm, but it definitely made want to keep on watching.

As I’ve said before, if a show doesn’t grab me from the get go, I’m quick to give up on it. This wasn’t the case with Animal Kingdom. Although the pilot was not a phenomenal piece of television, it was interesting, fun, funny at times, dark at others, set the tone for the entire show and enticed me enough to keep on watching.

Set in southern California, the show centers around an unconventional and highly dysfunctional family of four brothers, whose sister dies of a drug overdose a few minutes into the pilot episode. This leaves her 17 year old son in the care of matriarch extraordinaire Janine “Smurf” Cody and his uncles. What young J doesn’t know but soon finds out, is that deal ol’ Grandma and her boys are running a criminal operation, with Barkin calling the shots.

It’s implied right from the beginning that J’s uncles are all half-brothers, with Baz being an adopted son to Smurf. To complicate things further, J’s introduction to the family coincides with the return of eldest brother Pope (who also happens to be his dead mother’s twin) from a 3 year jail sentence, and let’s just say Pope isn’t really keen on welcoming his nephew into the fold.

As the plot unfolds, we find that not only does J also have a knack for the life, but also the Cody family is rife with tension, conflict and quite a few secrets.

The first few episodes felt a little bit like Graceland meets Point Break (the original, awesomely cheesy film starring Swayze, Reeves and, oddly, the RHCP, not the recent crappy remake), complete with surfing, sky diving, drugs, beach houses, a ‘gang’ leader bossing everyone around, and a crapload of secrets and revelations to keep things interesting. And just when you thought the Cody family is pretty messed up and crazy (on top of the criminal element), things get even darker.

Fortunately, the over-the-top factor is soon balanced out by character development. In the beginning, I had a hard time distinguishing among the brothers, as they not only looked similar but also seemed interchangeable. As the show delves deeper into the lives of Smurf and her boys, however, they become much less two-dimensional than they seemed at first glance and are increasingly fleshed out to stand as distinct personalities, each having their own set of skills, flaws and purpose.

Baz has taken over the reins since Pope went away, and initially seems like the most stable of the brothers, with his pretty wife and cute kid, caring for his drunkard father’s cat while he’s away and taking J under his wing…. except he leads a sort of double life south of the border, jumps at the chance to pour a bottle of scotch down his newly-clean dad’s throat and cooks up a plan for the gang’s new job, their biggest yet, with none other than J’s girlfriend’s father. As the show reaches its season finale, Baz not only escalates to strong violence, but is also revealed to be J’s actual dad. Now, to be sure, this bit of incest is not exactly Cersei & Jaime Lannister territory, as the boys are half brothers and Baz is apparently adopted, but still, pretty skeevy.

Deran is the self-loathing gay baby of the family, who looks like a stoner surfer and pretty much is one (a hot one, too). Oh, and he’s in the closet. He throws tantrums and takes off whenever he’s reminded of his place, resents Smurf for what he construes as lack of respect, compared to how she treats his older brothers, and, like his siblings, is pretty volatile. He is pretty quick to turn on his sometime-lover Adrian and beat him to a pulp when he fears his secret might be out and tries to drown J in the pool and generally puts on a tough-guy act to hide his insecurities and suppress his vulnerable side.

Craig is like the greasy brown-haired version of Deran, and he might be just as temperamental if he didn’t snort copious amounts of coke. His habit is almost encouraged by the rest of his family, and is supported in large part by his girlfriend-slash-dealer Renn. He has no qualms allowing others to take the fall for his actions (much like his siblings). Like Deran, he conceals whatever softer side there might be to him, but his bravado melts away instantly when faced with the consequences of his actions, at which points he starts crying for Mommy to bail him out, like when Renn found out it was him who not only robbed her and left her for dead, but also beat up the guy she suspected was responsible. When she decides to pay him back in kind, Smurf comes to his rescue and he gets to stay alive, but not keep his beloved Ducatti bike.

Pope, the firstborn and most dangerous of the brothers, is also the most unstable. On or off his meds, he maintains a calm, soft spoken facade that is, at times, utterly terrfying. He’s been nursing a stalker-like obsession with Baz’s wife for years, even going as far as to claim her as his own during his stint in prison. Still, he doesn’t allow his feelings to go beyond his sense of duty. When Smurf suspects Catherine has been talking to the cops, he’s the one she orders to take care of it – and he does. With Baz calling the shots since Pope went away, being relegated to the one who does Smurf’s dirty work doesn’t sit well with him, and neither does having to include J, a constant reminder of his twin sister, in the family business.

And reigning over all is Smurf, the super cool, stern but fair, leader of the tribe. She’s a woman of few words, but makes each and every one count. There’s no doubt, even for a moment, that she’s the one in charge. A master manipulator, she passive-aggressively makes sure everyone knows their place and no one dares cross her.

There’s also no doubt she loves her children and sees every outsider as a threat. While she balances between wanting to protect them and trying to secure her hold on them, the brothers also walk a fine line between constantly seeking her approval and trying to prove their individual worth by going rogue.

Although all four men, and of course Ellen Barkin herself, deliver flawless performances and are joined by an equally talented cast of supporting characters – Nicky, Paul, Detective Yates, Catherine, Alexa and Vin – what seals the deal for me is Finn Cole’s portrayal of J. The subtlety of his performance is the perfect foil to the brothers’ (often) larger-than-life portrayals and Smurf’s ambivalence between the strict boss and tender mother moments, right up to the last minutes of the season finale. Is J really a Cody at heart? Does he still harbor some ill will against his formerly estranged family? In any case, the fact that the cliffhanger finale is emotional rather than action-driven, is a refreshing deviation on the crime-drama genre.

(and at this point my computer shut down and I lost the majority of the post I was working on, so I’ll try and keep this short, because GAH)

The show isn’t without its flaws. While most shows throw in plenty of exposition by way of back-story and flashbacks, we get very little in Animal Kingdom. Too little, in fact, to adequately explain how this bizarre family of criminals came to be, let alone their fearsome matriarch. Apart from the revenge side story (40-odd years in the making) with her mother’s old boyfriend, we know very little about Smurf. Had the show shed some light on the characters’ lives, it might have made them more sympathetic – or even bigger monsters, depending on the direction it chooses to take. Sometimes the mystery angle runs its course pretty soon, and the unanswered questions stop being relevant and end up becoming frustrating; hopefully this won’t be the case with Animal Kingdom.

Because there is so little comic relief among the darker material, the few instances of laughter we do get seem somewhat forced (a prime example being the hilarious struggle of Deran and Craig as they tumble around barrels of recyclable oil while they try to retrieve the stolen money inside a moving truck).

What bothers me most – and this isn’t limited to Animal Kingdom but every show where all hell breaks loose after a singular event – is the central premise: in order for all these events to unfold before our eyes, a catalyst is needed. In this case, it’s J’s moving in with his estranged relatives. This would have been perfectly plausible as a means to justify subsequent tension and conflict, but the entire story is riddled with too many coincidences (and, again, bereft of any substantial background information) to make it even slightly realistic.

Not only does J’s mother’s death coincide with Pope’s release from prison, but also a few too many pieces seem to fall into place at around the same time, to conveniently move the plot along, from Nicky’s dad involuntarily inspiring Baz’s big heist plan to the cops approaching both Catherine and Alexa, to Pope’s old cell mate getting released pretty much around the same time Pope gets out. It seems as though we get from zero to 100 in no time and it just doesn’t feel earned.

At the end of the day, however, the pros definitely outweigh the cons for me. It’s intriguing, well-written, with very little filler and excellent performances, and it keeps me wanting more, which is really all I could ask for.