TNT's Animal Kingdom, premiering Tuesday night, is the television equivalent of a summer movie that you go to precisely because it's unambitious. Its premise is at least intriguing, relocating young J (Finn Cole) from the home of his mother (dead, when the show begins, of a heroin overdose) to that of his long-estranged grandmother (Ellen Barkin). Smurf, as played by Barkin, is no typical grandmother: while she's happy to whip up meatloaf or green juices for her boys, she's as excited to watch them fight, snort drugs and plot jewelry-store robberies for her.
Adapted from the superior 2010 Australian film that got Jacki Weaver an Oscar nomination, Animal Kingdom does little, plot-wise, that's particularly thrilling in its first three episodes. But Barkin is delivering an incredible performance. Weaver's Smurf concealed toughness and violence behind maternal care; Barkin's take on the role merges predatory appetites with a threatening sexuality. Her bemusement, as she watches her progeny misbehave in every sense, is tinged with an edge of attraction. It’s no wonder she has pushed them into a life of crime. She doesn’t just want money—she’s energized by bad behavior.
Smurf is in complete control of her sons at all times, but she herself is a volatile madwoman. It’s little wonder that there’s no father in the picture. Barkin convinces you that Smurf has the sheer force of will to generate children from her ribs. An innocent grandson (Finn Cole), who has just moved in with her after 11 years without contact, watches her with confusion. He (and we) haven’t met someone like Smurf before. Her bordering-on-incestuous leering would feel like a cheap bid for edginess in the hands of a performer less able to sell a taste for extremity, but it only emphasizes Barkin’s talent. She’s spinning an eerie tale of maternal devotion on the margins of a conventional crime story.
And there's just enough cliché here to make Animal Kingdom as comfortable as air-conditioning. But Ellen Barkin's reinvention of the Smurf role, finding new provocations in the already provocatively written role of a grandma crime boss, is a pleasant jolt. Barkin, recently very good on the not-good NBC sitcom The New Normal, is an under-utilized actress. Her inherent toughness makes her an ill fit with more genteel prestige TV. Animal Kingdom does everything else well enough, and uses her shrewd, assessing eyes and unmannered delivery perfectly.