Central Park is the brand new show from Loren Bouchard, the creator of Bob’s Burgers, Bob’s writer Nora Smith, and Josh Gad, who is of course one of the most irritating human beings ever born and normally only bearable when playing a character you’re meant to hate. Gad also plays the narrator of the show, Birdie, so named because “I sing like a bird and I’ve bathed in that fountain”.
I truly hoped I’d be able to get over my long standing disdain for Gad (which I still claim is thoroughly deserved, I mean he managed to ruin Frozen II for god’s sake) and enjoy the show as it’s an animated musical about those responsible for running New York’s Central Park, and as I love Bob’s Burgers and adore musicals it should be the perfect show for me. Fortunately he’s not in the first episode that often after the initial opening couple of minutes, only popping up to explain something on occasion, and he’s also not actually that bad, so I may have to upgrade my view of the man from “Someone I wish lost the ability to speak” to “Someone I can tolerate if the writing’s good enough”.
The writing is more than good enough too, indeed that’s something of an understatement as this opening episode is superb stuff, doing all of the things a pilot should – eg. introducing the characters, giving us a reason to care about them, and in the case of anything with a season long plot, getting us gripped by the story it’s going to be telling – and it does all of these with what looks like effortless ease, which is the mark of a truly talented bunch behind the scenes.
Beginning with a barnstorming opening song that does an amazing job of showing us all of the joys of Central Park (and none of the disturbing real life elements, but this is an upbeat fantastical affair so you can hardly blame it), Gad’s character makes it look like the kind of place you wish you could live in forever. And the family who are doing exactly that are our lead characters, park manager Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.), his journalist wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), supportive (if slightly kiss ass) son Cole (Tituss Burgess) and snarky comic creating daughter Molly (Kristen Bell). Bar the latter none of them bear any resemblance to any of the characters in Bob’s Burgers, and Molly only has a slight similarity to Tina as lordy is she boy obsessed, but she’s not preoccupied with arses and is a lot more lively so there are a good deal of differences.
The plot is introduced fairly early on as Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci) has lost her dog and Paige wants to cover the story for the local paper, leading to the (brief) second song of the piece where we learn that Bitsy has “Billin’ as the villain”, Birdie informs us we’re not actually supposedly not meant to know that just yet but it’s made clear in the following scene where Bitsy uses face cream made from a whale’s anus, which she loves seemingly only because it’s illegal. This is not always a subtle show then, but it is a bloody funny one as Bitsy continues to reveal why she’s such a despicable character over the following scene.
After that we learn how it’s “Hot lips turtle head day”, as the flowers are finally blooming, which Owen is over the moon about, making stickers reading “Everybody’s turtleheading” without realising it’s double meaning, though Cole and Molly are only too happy to point it out. It helps show what an extraordinarily upbeat character Owen is, but also ties in with the story later on, so isn’t just an excuse for some poo related jokes, not that I would have minded if it was as the show mines a lot of great gags from it.
Another pretty damn lovable song follows where Owen bemoans the lack of joy others have in the flowers finally making an appearance, which made me smile when he sings the line “Hey another turtle geek, no wait that’s just a fella trying to take a leak” and then made me grin no end when the rest of the cast become involved, because this really is a lovely show. It also skilfully introduces all of the motivations for the various characters, which includes Bitsy announcing a reward for the lost dog, and Bitsy’s assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs) gets in on the action and proves to be a quietly scheming so and so too.
The reward leads to a sod load of people turning up to the park, stomping on the flowers much to Owen’s horror, and then Cole is revealed to have had the dog all along, having found him earlier and then fallen in love with him. Because this is a show which clearly wanted me to fall in love with it too there’s then another song, a rap duet between Cole and Owen after the latter discovers Cole has Bitsy’s dog, and explains why he has to return it, and even though Cole delightfully exclaims “Papa I believe this puppy’s heaven sent, I promise to pick up his every excrement” he does the right thing in the end.
Well, it’s questionably the right thing as the dog looks horrified to be reunited with Bitsy and was clearly far happier with Cole, but hey, this is a moral show and legally it’s the correct decision anyhow. Though to show us just how shitty Bitsy is the show ends with her singing about her hatred for Central Park, discussing her plans to buy it and how she wants “Central Park with a Gap and Dunkin’ Donuts, Central Park get your wallets out and go nuts”, nicely setting up the season arc.
This is an unqualified success then, so good that it’s made me re-evaluate my opinion of the despicable Mr Gad, filled with songs that could feature in a hit Broadway musical, featuring fully formed characters who I already want to see on my tv screen for at least another decade, and with an impressively high gag rate which consistently made me laugh throughout the episode. The cast are all on fantastic form, their vocals all kinds of lovely, and my only complaint is that not all the episodes were released in one go so I can’t binge it over the course of the weekend.