Will Harris: Hey, kids, wanna be a TV critic? Then here’s the first rule of thumb to remember if you want to be a success in that field: When it comes to evaluating a new series, your opinion is always right.
That’s not to say that everyone else is going to agree with that opinion, of course, and you may ultimately backpedal on your initial take on a new series, since it’s foolhardy to presume than a series’ pilot is absolutely, positively going to tell you how that series will ultimately turn out. But you never want to find yourself second-guessing what you think about a new series just because someone else’s opinion is different.
Which brings us to Animal Practice, one of the new single-camera sitcoms that NBC is, a la Go On a few days ago, previewing during the Olympics in order to build a bit of extra buzz before its formal bow in September. The series stars Justin Kirk, who deserves your respect for finding a new full-time gig before his previous full-time gig (Weeds) has even finished airing its final season, as Dr. George Coleman, the top dog—and, yes, the pun is utterly and unapologetically intended—at the Crane Animal Hospital in New York City. George is a damned good veterinarian, and he knows it, which is why he swaggers from patient to patient with an ego the size of a Great Dane, but he isn’t nearly as good at maintaining the organization of that office.
As such, when the elderly owner of the practice passes away and leaves the place to her granddaughter Dorothy (Joanna Garcia Swisher, most recently of ABC’s Better with You), who also happens to be George’s ex-girlfriend, Dorothy’s first executive decision is to organize the place. It’s a decision that utterly rankles George, naturally, but when he jumps from acting mildly annoyed to getting downright confrontational, Dorothy kicks him to the curb. Don’t worry, though: By the end of the pilot, he’s reminded her of his gifts as a vet, she’s brought him back into the fold, and the so-called “sexy tension,” as it’s described by Nurse Angela (Betsy Sodaro), is just as palpable as the syllabus for Sitcom 101 demands.
Ah, yes, the mention of Nurse Angela serves as a reminder that what we’ve discussed up to this point is only the romantic-comedy skeleton of the series. No hospital-set sitcom is complete without a collection of wacky associates and patients, and this one is filled with quite a few of both. On the human front, there’s Dr. Doug Jackson (Tyler Labine), who’s almost as gifted a vet as George but isn’t nearly as confident when it comes to wooing women, Dr. Yamamoto (Bobby Lee), and Dr. Rizzo, a Capuchin monkey who—given that Animal Practice is executive-produced by Community’s Joe and Anthony Russo—will hopefully turn out to be the cousin of Annie’s Boobs. (This would be an incredibly easy conceit to pull off, by the way, since they’re played by the same monkey, an incredibly cute little creature named Crystal.) Given the premise, it should be no surprise that Dr. Rizzo isn’t the only animal running around the place, either, with everything from an anaconda to a basset hound making an appearance during the course of the pilot.
But is the combination of humans and animals enough to make Animal Practice funny? As I discovered after taking my biannual trip to the Television Critics Association press tour, a rather substantial number of critics believe that it is not. They are wrong. But at least in this case, I can see why a lot of them think that they’re right.
Animal Practice is one of those sitcom pilots that is, to awkwardly combine farming and sporting metaphors, trying way too hard to cut a wide swath during its first time up at bat. Romantic comedy and sexual tension? Check. Eccentric characters? Check. Cute animals? Check. Obvious punchlines and weird humor? Yep, they’re both in there. It’s only inevitable that some of these elements are going to hit more successfully than others, and, believe me, not everything works as well as it should. For instance, as she’s currently written, the aforementioned Nurse Angela is one of the more grating sitcom characters in recent memory, but if she’s toned down to a mildly-quirky level, she could actually prove to be funny. One thing that shouldn’t change, however, is the character of Dr. Doug, as it’s nice to actually see Labine playing someone who’s socially awkward rather than the totally-in-your-face guys he’s portrayed so often in recent years.
In a perfect world, this series could turn into the veterinary version of Scrubs, a consistently entertaining blend of medicine, oddball comedy, friendship, and occasional romance. Certainly, it’s a bonus that there’s a monkey as a regular, not to mention the added curiosity of seeing what new animals will turn up in each episode, but there’s still the nagging question of where it’s all going to go from here, and right now it’s really hard to say. But with a cast and creative team as strong as this show has, Animal Practice is already showing a lot of potential, so it seems a worthwhile bet to stick around and see how things progress.
Erik Adams: At The A.V. Club, we try to second-guess television writers and producers as seldom as possible. After all, we’re not in the business of making TV—we’re in the business of telling you what we think of TV. That becomes more difficult during the prognostication-prone process of reviewing pilots, because determining whether or not you want to stick with a show through its early episodes depends on if you like the path laid out by the pilot.
With that preamble out of the way: I would much rather hang out at the version of the clinic that exists before Dorothy arrives. In its early scenes, the show operates within a heightened, cartoon-come-to-life reality that jibes well with the concept that Rizzo might “scrub up” for a procedure—and then be of legitimate assistance in the operating room. Instead, the pilot tries to have its zany-animal-hijinks cake and eat it to, which has the unwanted effect of deflating broader gags like Yamamoto’s snake encounter and cheapening the deeper, character-based scenes between George and Dorothy. That strange balance feels like the result of intrusive network notes and post-pick-up tinkering, so it’ll be intriguing to watch the show decide which side of its personality it ultimately favors. Of course, that evolution will be more fun to watch if the show plays to its feral side more often.