Apple TV’s “Central Park” is a glorious gift for comedy and musical fans and, well, everyone. Loren Bouchard, the creator of “Bob’s Burgers,” has refined the vision of that fantastic Fox show, bringing its emphasis on family and love of original music to a new project that feels like a relative of the Belcher family while also standing (or dancing) on its own two feet. With a ridiculously talented voice cast, “Central Park” unfolds more like a great Broadway musical, more reliant on new tunes than Bouchard’s Fox hit but maintaining that show’s razor-sharp sense of humor and gigantic heart. It’s the best show on Apple TV by some stretch, and one of the best shows of 2020 anywhere. I can’t wait to see more.
Executive producer Josh Gad stars as something of a narrator, a busker in Central Park who often sings character or plot details to the audience. Already, Bouchard and company are playing with classic stage tropes, using someone as a liaison for the characters and viewers as Gad’s chorus-like character introduces us to his best friend Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his family. Tillerman is the park manager of Central Park—yes, that Central Park—and lives in an old house on the grounds with his journalist wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), daughter Molly (Kristen Bell), and son Cole (Tituss Burgess). At the other end of the park, high enough above it to see the whole thing really, is the Leona Helmsley-esque Bitsy Brandenham (a marvelous Stanley Tucci) and her assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs). Each episode has its own self-contained narrative, but the show is way more interested in telling a season-long story than “Bob’s Burgers,” this one about how Bitsy is going to destroy Central Park and how the Tillermans could be the only ones to stop her.
Each episode also is stunningly well-done and also bursts with music, owing a great deal to the modern Broadway musical but never sounding like it’s mimicking classic showtunes. The truth is that this cast knows a thing or two about Broadway. Diggs and Odom were in the original cast of a little show called “Hamilton” and Gad headlined the first Broadway run of “The Book of Mormon.” These are people who wouldn’t show up if the music was mediocre. Every tune, especially the ones in the premiere, not only pushes the narrative forward or reveals something unspoken in a character’s heart but stands on its own as a great song. Music was always an essential part of “Bob’s Burgers”—almost every episode features an original song—but that was a “comedy with music,” this is a "musical that's also a comedy." And it’s a delightful one that incorporates different styles while never losing sight of its characters and the world that Bouchard is creating.
To be fair, the Tillermans are not yet as vibrant as the Belchers. While the voice work is amazing throughout, the show sparks a bit more when Tucci and Diggs (and Gad) are on-screen. Much like Bob, Owen is kind of a straight man, allowing the more chaotic characters to bounce off of him from the supporting cast. However, I suspect the Tillermans will grow their own personalities as distinct as Bob, Linda, and the kids. After all, the first season of “Bob’s Burgers” has some notable growing pains. The first episode here is better than anything “Bob’s Burgers” did in its first few years.
Honestly, there’s been a lot of disappointing TV lately—“Upload,” “Hollywood,” “Space Force,” “Snowpiercer,” and “Run.” It’s so nice to finally see something current that amplifies the strengths of its creative team and cast in a way that's fresh and invigorating. “Central Park” may pay homage to parts of the world that are now shut down like public parks and Broadway, but it’s also the most vibrant, alive show of the year, something I didn’t really know how much I needed until I saw it.
Four episodes screened for review.