Picture this: It’s 2010, you’re 15 years old, and you’ve saved up your allowance to buy the Wicked soundtrack from FYE. You haven’t actually seen the show, but your friend swears it changed her life when she saw the tour and you heard Rachel and Kurt cover of “Defying Gravity” on Glee. So you play the CD on your old janky CD player, trying to visualize the stunning special effects that your best friend gushed about, but because you don’t really know what the heck is going on, you pull up the Wikipedia page for the musical, reading along to the plot as you nod along to the songs.
Is this the ideal experience to consume Wicked? Probably not, but you’re 15, and it’s the best thing you’ve got.
Apple TV Plus’ Central Park, a new animated comedy from Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard, somehow replicates this experience of consuming a musical but not really consuming a musical. The animated show boasts a stellar cast, kooky characters, and some really fun songs, and when all those separate pieces come together, it’s an evolved form of the animated musical. Instead of a Disney movie, where the music serves to highlight the animated story, the visuals in Central Park augment the experience of watching a musical. But in the first four episodes of Central Park, those moments are few and far between, making the show feel, at times, like the Wikipedia scenario — good enough for now, but lacking when compared to those moments of fully realized musical theater glory.
Central Park follows park groundskeeper Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.), his reporter wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), and their two children Molly (Kristen Bell) and Cole (Tituss Burgess), along with scheming heiress Bitsy (Stanley Tucci) and her assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs). Each of them have their own internal motivations and struggles, but they’re all pulled together by Bitsy’s grand plan to buy New York’s legendary park and turn it into a mall.
And would it be an animated musical without Josh Gad? In Central Park he plays a street musician named Birdie, who defies logic, narrating the entire show to the audience and interacting with the characters. He serves to bridge the scenes offering transitions that you definitely could not call subtle — much like an omniscient Greek choir member, or the body text of a Wikipedia article — but they are effective. Whether or not they’re funny depends on how much you enjoy gratuitous fourth-wall breaking.
Central Park juggles each character’s individual storylines and, while they often cross, it’s a lot to track, especially when some of them weigh heavier on the overarching Bitsy-buys-out-the-park storyline than others. While Paige’s quest to be taken seriously as a real journalist means she’s weaving in and out of local politics and learning about the scheme, Molly’s hung up over a boy she’s never really talked to, and her daydreams about him grind some of the tension to a halt.
Lots of the scenes in-between songs struggle in a similar way, feeling non-essential or meant as build up for something better. That’s not to say that smaller character moments don’t deserve their time or that the boy Molly’s crushing on isn’t detrimental to the plot (he slips out that Bitsy is his aunt at one point), but the scenes leading up to her songs tend to drag and the songs themselves don’t quite hit.
There are pieces of musical brilliance in Central Park, and they speak to the potential of the series. The first musical sequence — an ensemble piece where each character sings about their motivations à la “One Day More” from Les Misérables or the prologue from Into the Woods — fully embraces what makes such sequences in musicals so memorable (it’s all about coming together!) and uses the animation to showcase the side-by-side harmonies. The fourth episode sees Owen going head-to-head with the manager of a local garbage plant, with a quick back and forth as they dive into a book of New York City statutes, reminiscent of Hamilton’s “Washington On Your Side.”
It’s these moments of wonderfully realized musical theater that transcend the living-vicariously-through-Wikipedia slog and give a glimpse of what Central Park might be once all the pieces are working together. The first four episodes of any show’s first season won’t be its best, but there’s enough pure joy in Bouchard’s series to keep tuning in. It’s a show that feels more like musical theater than an animated comedy, but in its best moments it blends the two and shines.
The first two episodes of Central Park are now available on Apple TV Plus.
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