CENTRAL PARK (Loren Bouchard). First two episodes streaming Friday, May 29, on Apple TV+; subsequent episodes released weekly. Rating: NNN
Having already produced and/or created the delightful animated ensemble comedies Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Home Movies and Bob’s Burgers, writer/producer Loren Bouchard makes his biggest creative swing yet with Central Park, an ambitious, complex musical about a handful of people whose lives revolve around the eponymous Manhattan attraction. And on the basis of the first four episodes, it’s… kind of okay, I guess? Promising. Let’s go with promising.
Like all of Bouchard’s stuff, Central Park is a celebration of eccentric obsessives. But that actually lends itself nicely to the musical genre, which is almost singularly driven by desires so intense that people burst into song. As does the brightly coloured, modestly caricatured look of Bouchard’s animation style, come to think of it.
The show feels like it exists in the same universe as Bob’s Burgers – and since it was originally developed at Fox, that may well have been the plan. It should also be noted that Bob’s Burgers is not unfamiliar with the musical format, making Central Park feel like an organic evolution for Bouchard.
Park manager Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom, Jr.), his journalist wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn) and their weird kids Molly (Kristen Bell) and Cole (Tituss Burgess) spend their days singing their way through minor problems – a missing dog, a garbage strike, a crush – while wealthy weirdo Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), owner of the aforementioned dog, schemes to delegitimize the entire park so she can sell it to developers. (Odom’s Hamilton co-star Daveed Diggs is also part of the regular cast as Bitsy’s cranky assistant Helen, who doesn’t really have much of an arc in the first few episodes.)
Our guide through the story is a busker named Birdie (Josh Gad), who serves as the show’s narrator in a semi-omniscient capacity. Birdie is pretty much useless: he drops a couple of interesting factoids about the park, and Gad has an enthusiastic singing voice, but his presence mostly feels like an excuse to shoehorn the Frozen star, an executive producer and co-creator of the show, into the cast.
Bell, Gad’s fellow Arendellian, gets much more to do as Molly, the neurotic tween who spends her time drawing superheroes and fighting her crush on a boy (Eugene Cordero) who flies a kite in the park. She’s also playing a biracial character, which caught some flack when Apple announced the details of the show earlier this year. All I can say is that Bell’s voice works for the character, and if we’re keeping score, the Tillermans’ other biracial kid is played by a Black actor. Also, no one seems terribly bothered by Tucci and Diggs playing women – though in fairness, that specific type of casting is kind of Bouchard’s thing – two of the three female leads in Bob’s Burgers are also voiced by male performers.
Anyway, the show itself is more problematic than the casting. The songs – mostly written by Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, with contributions by Steven Davis, Nora Smith and Bouchard – range from clever to charming, and the voice cast is appealing, but those first four episodes struggle to get their various parts playing in the same key. When everything lines up – as it does in Weirdos Make Great Superheroes, written by Waitress star Sara Bareilles – all my objections drop away, and the show’s potential seems boundless. But that only happened once in four episodes.
I mean, I’ll keep watching. Bob’s Burgers took a season to figure itself out and fine-tune its relationships and stakes; maybe Central Park needs the same shakedown time. Hell, Bouchard might even solve the Birdie problem. I once thought Teddy was a one-note joke on Bob’s Burgers, and now I love the big oaf. Let’s see where this goes.