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Joel McHale Returns to TV Comedy in Promising Animal Control

You may have been surprised to see the ads for FOX’s “Animal Control” during the Super Bowl last night and said to yourself, “I didn’t know they made that kind of show anymore.” They really don’t. Before this series, FOX had a grand total of two sitcoms on their schedule, “Call Me Kat” and “Welcome to Flatch,” and neither are exactly monster hits. Could “Animal Control” mark a comedy return for the network the same way that “Abbott Elementary” has been a smash for ABC or “Night Court” has been surprisingly huge for NBC? It actually could.

The truth is that people love familiarity in the sitcom form (“Abbott Elementary” has echoes of “The Office” throughout and, well, “Night Court” is a reboot) and there’s just something comfortable about the structure and execution of this show, and it’s not just seeing Joel McHale back on TV. The “Community” movie may have to wait a bit longer as McHale plays Frank Shaw on this show from Bob Fisher, Rob Greenberg, and Dan Sterling. Shaw is the most vibrant personality at the Northwest Seattle Division of Animal Control, a setting that allows for a workplace vibe that’s very reminiscent of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” without all the accusations of copaganda.

This show’s version of Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta is the lovably goofy Fred “Shred” Taylor (Michael Rowland), partnered well with McHale’s cynical veteran. McHale isn’t going too far from his Jeff Winger character (in fact, it’s funny to imagine this as a sequel and that Jeff somehow ended up in Seattle chasing after wild animals), but the important thing is that he has an easy comedic chemistry with Rowland. McHale’s ability to somehow be likably smarmy is countered perfectly by Rowland’s wide-eyed optimism. And they have the kind of comic timing together that most comedies don’t produce until season two or three.

And they’re not alone. Like the workplace comedies that clearly inspired “Animal Control,” this show populates the rest of the ensemble with distinct personalities. Standouts included Grace Palmer as the eccentrically unpredictable Victoria and Ravi Patel as her family man partner Amit. Vella Lovell plays the insecure but lovable boss Emily, who seems likely to be the Pam to Shred’s Jim as the show gets going.

Of course, setting a comedy in the world of animal control allows for a lot of goofy set-ups and it’s easy to see “Animal Control” devolving into wacky physical humor a bit too often as they run out of ideas. But the three episodes sent for review (mostly) avoid this trap, focusing on setting up the characters more than defining them by the admittedly odd jobs they have. And the setting allows for set-ups for punchlines that give this familiar format just enough unique personality. 

“Animal Control” doesn’t break the mold (network TV sitcoms rarely do these day), but it understands that the quality of a hit sitcom is often determined by the depth of its ensemble. We love entire groups of characters on shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “The Office.” After three episodes, I found myself engaged with the characters on “Animal Control” enough to want to know what they’ll get up to next. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Three episodes screened for review.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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