Police stories make up an overwhelming amount of our television diets. So much so that Law & Order: SVU, a show solely and entirely about sex crimes, is a comfort watch. As America wrestles with its history of racist policing and how to present law enforcement on television without slipping into copaganda, the cop comedy feels like it’s one day from retirement. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s final season was written and re-written to address 2020’s national uprising against police violence. Aside from the relentlessly dark Reno 911!, there’s not much room on TV for a feel-good comedy about the incredibly unfunny work of law enforcement.
Fox’s new single-camera comedy, Animal Control, splits the difference. Joel McHale, in Jeff Winger mode, plays veteran Seattle animal control officer Frank Shaw, a lone wolf stuck with an open-hearted rookie and former Olympic snowboarder nicknamed “Shred” (Michael Rowland). They look and act like TV cops, worrying about donuts, budgets, and drugs, except the show sidesteps the messiness of asking viewers to again side with the police when the news gives them increasing reasons not to. Instead, by keeping the uniforms, lowering the stakes, and cutting out the violence inherent to policing, Animal Control makes a case for cop shows without cops, one that audiences can sink into without having to wade into the grim realities of, well, reality.
It’s not a totally clean break from the norm, though. Frank’s an ex-cop, of course, who left the force after uncovering some vague corruption. It feels inevitable that we’ll have to dig into this and chip away at the show’s originality, but in the first three episodes, that backstory is thankfully pushed to the edges. Playing to McHale’s smarmy strengths, Frank’s cynicism underscores his co-workers’ dopiness. As the optimist in their Odd Couple pairing, Shred intends to worm his way into Frank’s heart through sheer goodwill.
The show certainly looks like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, right down to its cast. Nobody would call the cops on you for confusing Rowland for B99’s Andy Samberg. Aside from being a dead ringer for Samberg, Rowland’s Mountain Dew-fueled positivity places him in league with Samberg’s Jake Peralta, with McHale standing in for Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt. The same rules apply here; Rowland’s innocence signals that this show will earn its levity through the heart.
The rest of the cast is equally winning, notably the always-welcome Ravi Patel as Amit, a neurotic family man who finds the day-to-day of wildlife enforcement less chaotic than domesticity. Kiwi newcomer Grace Palmer plays Patel’s freewheelin’ party-girl partner Victoria, providing a nice lifestyle contrast. He lives vicariously through her, and her immaturity becomes more pronounced by comparison, like when she ditches him with the dog she rescued from a crime scene to go clubbing with her friends. Vella Lovell, as the unit’s administrator, Emily Price, plays the other half of Shred’s network-mandated will-they-won’t-they romance. Rowland and Lovell have chemistry. Their flirtations, particularly surrounding a smoothie and constipation, could melt even McHale’s frigid heart. But the relationship feels like an unforced error that will likely outstay its welcome. If The Office taught us anything, it’s that these relationships aren’t meant to last.
Created by Bob Fisher, Rob Greenberg, and Dan Sterling, Animal Control announces its willingness to go for big, broad laughs almost immediately. With credits ranging from Wedding Crashers and The Moodys to Long Shot and The Grinder, the three creators’ previous work is felt in the show’s heartfelt silliness and snappy snark. Shred’s inaugural assignment sees him talked into removing a weasel from an attic while Frank’s grabbing coffee. The situation erupts in flames when the Mustelidae runs into a lit fireplace, returns ablaze, and sets a nearby couch on fire. “On a scale from 1 to 10,” McHale quips, “How would you rate our service today?”
Without the talking heads of an Office-style mockumentary, Animal Control settles into its silliness with confidence. No joke is too stupid, even if it fails to fill space, like when the group wears riot gear and grabs some carrots to detain a fluffle of drug-addled bunnies. While the riot gear isn’t a satisfying punchline, the animal effects hit, bouncing between real animals and actors holding stuffed animals to their faces, Monty Python And The Holy Grail-style.
Like many first-season sitcoms, there is the sense that the show is holding back. This is a comedy where everyone looks like they’re having a fun time making it, even if the rhythms are a little off. Jokes, like the donuts being replaced with vegetables (“Revenge!”), feel like empty calories. Weirdly, the best part of this bit isn’t McHale’s unconvincing rage but rather Rowland earnestly enjoying jicama. The smaller moments almost always nourish. None of this is a dealbreaker. Animal Control is a perfectly enjoyable sitcom, one that is destined to improve the farther it gets into its run. One does wish to see the show off the leash, and maybe in season two it will be more willing to indulge its animal instincts.
Animal Control premieres on February 16 on Fox.