Feeling a bit down? Do you look around and feel like the world is falling apart before your eyes? Do you experience each successive day as yet another iteration in an endless span that extends out as far into the future as you can see?
Apologies. That was a rhetorical question. Of course you do. We all do.
I’d like to say that I have a cure for coronavirus, or civic fracture, or political degradation. I don’t. But I do have a recommendation for a TV show that may make you feel a tiny bit better, at least for 25 minutes or so at a stretch.
I speak of the Apple TV+ animated musical series Central Park, now just past the midpoint of its 13-episode season. Will you be a little late to the show (as I was)? Sure. But this is very much a better-than-never scenario.
The story revolves around the manager of Central Park, Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom Jr.), who lives on-site in Edendale Castle (not really a castle) with his family: wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), daughter Molly (Kristen Bell), and son Cole (Tituss Burgess). In and around the park, the kids deal with an adolescent crush and a mad desire for a pet, while dad confronts such crises as chewing-gum wrappers, trampled flower beds, and waste disposal. But lurking in the background is the season’s through-line, a plot—uncovered largely by Paige, an alt-weekly reporter—by hotel magnate Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci) and her underwhelmed assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs) to buy Central Park and fill it with condos and chain stores.
The show is created by Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith of Bob’s Burgers, along with Josh Gad, who also voices the show’s aggressively ingratiating busker-narrator, Birdie. The similarities to the earlier family-based, animated comedy are immediately apparent. But where Bob’s Burgers generally used musical numbers as wacky grace notes, in Central Park they’re pretty much the raison d’etre for the entire enterprise. “I had to beg, plead and barter to get four songs an episode,” Gad told The Wrap.
The plan also required bringing together what Gad refers to as “the Avengers of musical theater”: Odom Jr. and Diggs both won Tonys for Hamilton; Gad won his own for The Book of Mormon; and Burgess, in addition to his work on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is famed for his tenor.
If that weren’t enough, the show is sprinkled with cunning Broadway cameos. In one episode, Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in Hamilton, shows up as roller-skater Glorious Gary. In another, still better, Gad’s Birdie is relieved of his duties as narrator after accidentally blurting a “spoiler”—which is, as any critic who’s ever dealt with a comments section will attest, the most unforgivable of all human sins. His replacement? Andrew Rannells, who played Elder Price to Gad’s Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon.
The songs themselves are a pleasure, typically beginning small in classic musical-theater style before expanding into multiple vocal parts and delightful harmonies. Many are written by Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel (Olaf’s Frozen Adventure), but there are also numbers by Cyndi Lauper, Alan Menken, Aimee Mann, and Megan Trainor. Two of the best bits so far are by Sara Bareilles (“Weirdos Make Great Superheroes”) and Darren Criss (“First Class Hands,” which accompanies Birdie’s handover of narration duties).
Central Park is a light, fun, silly show—far less daring or boundary-breaking than, say, Big Mouth or BoJack Horseman. But in this era of ubiquitous irony, innocence is its own kind of daring—and a welcome respite from the waves of bad news that seem to break every day. And while the show’s creators couldn’t have imagined it, Central Park serves as a remarkably timely metaphor: It is, quite literally, a defense of the public square, a reminder that if we don’t find ways to nurture it and coexist within it, we might lose it forever.