With a majority of performing arts venues across the world closed since earlier this year; fans of musical theatre have been left with minimal options to enjoy new works. But releasing just in time to sate our need for new musical numbers, Apple and 20th Century Fox Television have aired their first season of Central Park exclusively via the Apple TV+ digital distribution service over the past ten weeks.
Some unacquainted with animated comedies nowadays may raise an eyebrow at the medium being an adequate replacement for a live stage production. But, while lacking the live part, many shows nowadays actively embrace music to contribute to the overall musical experience. From the many catchy earworms of The Simpsons to the animated works of Seth MacFarlane and its homages to musicals past and present, audiences of all ages can enjoy a combination of comedy and music with today’s offerings. But none are perhaps as notable as Bob’s Burgers, which not only features at least one new song each episode, but has many episodes themed around the characters and a performance of art and culture. And yes, Work Hard or Die Trying Girl should be a musical in itself!
Central Park is the brainchild of Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard, along with Josh Gad and Nora Smith. It follows the story of the Tillerman-Hunter family whom reside within Central Park. The family – comprising of Owen Tillerman (the manager of Central Park), Paige Hunter (an aspiring journalist) and their two kids Molly and Cole – are drawn into a series of events which indicate someone is out to take possession of the park. As the viewer, the show wastes no time in telling us that the root of this chaos is Bitsy Brandenham, a local hotel magnate who aspires to replace Central Park with urban dwellings.
The show is episodic in nature, with each focusing on two or three interconnected stories involving different members of the principal and guest casts. From garbage disposal services being cut to a quest for a missing receipt, many of the problems facing the family are grounded in reality and don’t venture too far into uncanny territory. However, their execution through the use of character personalities, music and the odd theatre trope makes many of them unique. Each episode is guided along by 3-4 musical numbers, which is easily where the show shines brightest.
What sets Central Park apart from other animated comedies is that the cast predominantly consists of talent one might expect to find performing on stage. From Josh Gad as the lovable narrator, Leslie Odom Jr. as Owen, Tituss Burgess as Cole, Kristen Bell as Molly, Kathryn Hahn as Paige Hunter, and Stanley Tucci and Daveed Diggs taking on opposite gender roles as Bitsy and her assistant Helen respectively; each character has the perfect voice to suit their character and personality. The recurring and guest characters are not lacking either, with the cast including H. Jon Benjamin, Andrew Rannells, Rory O’Malley, Tony Shalhoub, and Danny Burstein. And if that wasn’t enough, throw in an assortment of lead and guest songwriters including Cyndi Lauper, Darren Criss, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel to name a few.
A voice cast and creative talent such as this means every episode feels like you are watching another act of a musical, albeit enhanced with the versatility of an animated environment. With hardly a bad track among the dozens of songs, fans of almost any genre will find a song or two to be humming along with weeks from now. Even when it came to the weakest of the ten episodes (S01E07 – “Squirrel, Interrupted”), the music to some degree helped salvage the episode from being bland filler content.
Outside the music, how does the show fare? To best summarise, Central Park’s first season feels like Act 1 of a musical, where more time and resources are spent welcoming viewers into the narrative than tackling too many of the significant issues faced by its characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it offered ample time to appreciate the main cast, enjoy a few quirky side-stories and ultimately made for a relaxing weekly watch. However, with only a second season confirmed at this point, it leaves me with some doubt around whether a second 10-episode jaunt would be enough to wrap up the story adequately.
When first viewing the trailer for Central Park, my mind drifted to thinking that it would be of similar production quality to that of Bob’s Burgers. Not bad by any means, far from it, but not pushing the boundaries of animation. Instead, the show has proven to push the boundaries of weekly cartoon animation, from much more fluid character animations to hugely detailed and layered environments. One particular highlight is scenes which take place from the imagination of Molly, merging real-world events with the creative comic-book drawings of a middle-schooler. The only issue I could see, a nitpick if anything was that when characters such as the narrator Birdie (pictured on the right in the above image) played an instrument, they were not always in exact sync with the music. Not usually something one would notice or expect from a cartoon, but in this instance stood out to me.
In a time when creative industries are struggling given the COVID-19 pandemic, Central Park was such a welcome addition to my weekly streaming schedule, and I will honestly say I am going to struggle enduring this long interval until its second act commences whenever. Fantastic cast members, well-written music and some endearing plot points make this musical about the New York park something magical.