Central Park – Season 1 (Apple TV+ 2020)
Created by: Josh Gad, Loren Bouchard & Nora Smith
When I heard there was a new animated series from the creators of ‘Bob’s Burgers’ with many of the voices of ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Frozen’ singing songs in New York’s Central Park, I knew I had to see it!
Third-wall breaking busker Birdie (Josh Gad) comically narrates this animated musical set in New York’s famous landmark, watching as park Manager Owen (Leslie Odom Jr., ‘Hamilton‘) and his family (Tituss Burgess ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘, Kristen Bell ‘Frozen‘ and Kathryn Hahn ‘The Visit‘) face their daily challenges while a wealthy heiress (Stanley Tucci, ‘Hunger Games‘) plots a real-estate development of the park.
A few months ago in the midst of lockdown, I was in search of something to watch, ideally a sitcom-length comedy with plenty of episodes to enjoy. I needed a show that could be an easy go-to bit of levity in my routine, light twenty-minute episodes to enjoy as a little break, or with lunch, and most nights if I want to watch something in bed before I go to sleep. ‘Bob’s Burgers’ was one of those shows that kept popping up as a recommendation to me, especially as I’ve enjoyed other animations with some of the same voice cast, but it was never easily available, I think it had dropped off my streaming services a few years ago, and so by this point in time I was already 10 seasons behind. Under current circumstances, that was exactly what I needed, knowing I had plenty of episodes to binge at whatever speed desired and no risk of running out in a few days, as often happens when embarking on a new show that’s maybe a limited series or only a season or two through. Currently, I’m less than 50 episodes away from up-to-date and having to face the impending dread of catching up, something lessened by the fact I took a break, albeit short, to watch this new show from some of the same minds.
It’s got so many elements to appeal to my tastes. An animated musical comedy series from the creators of what I’ve been watching and enjoying daily, with songs by many talented songwriters including Alan Menken, Sara Bareilles, and Darren Criss all of whom I like the music of. Voiced by many stars from the casts of ‘Frozen’ and ‘Hamilton’, with witty writing that tickles my sense of humour and inventive storytelling, this had me fully on board right from the opening number in the first episode, and by the end of the short season, I was desperate for more.
Storywise, it’s a nice mix of episodic and multi-episode arcs, with a variety of challenges of differing magnitudes, personal and professional. Each character has their own passions and desires that are explored through the season, though some of these are at odds with each other, bringing a mild level of jeopardy that invites investment in each character’s parts.
The one key test I often mention when reviewing musicals is whether or not I want to listen to the music again after seeing it, and this passes that test. I’ve enjoyed certain songs in my Spotify rotation for the past few months (it even made my highlights reel of 2020), including one with a line about the difficulties of veganism that has been added to my cerebral soundboard, triggered whenever I see or hear the word “vegan”. The appeal of the songs do vary somewhat, but they’re generally enjoyable and often amusing, though many benefit from being enjoyed in context, they’re not songs you’re going to see covered widely on YouTube or sing at karaoke as they make more sense as part of the story.
I was a little surprised that after it sparked a bidding war, this ultimately went to Apple TV+ as it seems like with just a little tweaking it could’ve worked for many other streamers or networks. Productions on Apple TV+ do seem to regularly feature a musical component, whether it be ‘Little Voice’ or even ‘Dickinson’ that features a prominent contemporary soundtrack, which is not surprising really as all Apple’s media content services are essentially just an extension of what began as iTunes and their ‘vision’ is to have subscribers on their iPhones consuming video content in the same way they already do with music. Sure, I’d watch this on a bus, or in a waiting room at the doctor’s, but it’s even nicer on a decent-sized screen with good speakers.
Forseeably, some controversy resulted from the casting of Kristen Bell as Molly, a bi-racial teen girl, though to her credit she stepped away from the role very graciously, acknowledging a misjudgment that wasn’t entirely hers. From season 2 the role will be filled by yet another ‘Hamilton’ original cast member Emmy Raver-Lampman (‘The Umbrella Academy’), a far more racially-appropriate choice. When questions of appropriate casting are raised about shows made by Loren Bouchard, it’s a complex issue to navigate as ‘Bob’s Burgers’ has always had female characters voiced by male actors, and even ‘Central Park’ still has Daveed Diggs voicing (quite brilliantly) what appears to me to be a white woman. Bouchard has previously said he loves that animated characters can be voiced by anyone, but that doesn’t negate particularly the issue of racial diversity in voice casting. Even ‘Bob’s Burgers’ and ‘Gravity Falls’ legend Kristen Schall has been arguing the counterpoint quite publicly, leading to a change of message from Bouchard and assurances that roles on his shows will be more equally gender-cast, and I daresay more accurately racially cast after the recasting of Molly.
The rest of the voice cast is staying as they are and they’re great, with a few sounding as they normally do, while others revel in uniquely voicing their character. With the exception of maybe Kathryn Hahn, I would think the proven singing abilities of these actors factored into their casting. Though it’s not what he’s now best known for, Tituss Burgess, like Leslie Odom Jr., has considerable Broadway renown. Though what I most appreciated from his role was how he carries over many childlike qualities of Titus Andromidon into his voice performance as pre-teen Cole, there’s a sense of excitement and wonderment that works well for the character and makes him very endearing despite his unassuming plot involvement.
I’m looking forward to the next season, though I can understand if it takes a little while to get made. I hope it will build on this excellent start. What I’d love to see, that few animated series ever do, is actually depict these characters getting older and maturing, that’d be really interesting to see, it’s really unlikely to be a long-running 10+ season show, so why not do something unusual with it?
Streaming on Apple TV+ where that service is available. I’ve been noticing a few other Apple shows making their way onto other services internationally, so I hope this will become easier to access for those who aren’t subscribing to that streaming service because it’s a great show that I want to see doing well, I would love to see it run for a few years at least.