‘Animal Practice’ Aims Low

Animal Practice opens with a cat sitting on the ledge of a high-rise apartment building. A woman calls for “Giggles” to come watch The Wendy Williams Show, where Williams and Jessica Simpson will be swapping wigs. The cat responds a strained meow and jumps off the ledge. Giggles attempts suicide rather than have to sit through another hour of terrible daytime talk shows. Get it?

The show never aims any higher than this. It’s as if NBC decided that it’s tired of being the network associated with critically adored but low-rated comedies like 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation. And so… it’s turned to animal reaction shots and crude humor to invert that formula. A similar illogic seems to have informed the decision to preview the series before its fall premiere, on 12 August, right after the Summer Olympic Closing Ceremonies. Who does NBC imagine its audience will be? Kids who’ve stayed up too late and laugh at monkeys who make faces and dogs who wear bows?

Even if Animal Practice might appeal to fans of Madagascar or Ice Age, it bears the burden of being live action, which means the animals don’t talk and the people have to. Chief among these is the staff at Crane Animal Hospital, headed by veterinarian George Coleman (Justin Kirk). He’s an anti-social jerk clearly modeled after Dr. House, but in this case, he’s a genius at diagnosing animals. He’s smug and impatient with people (who are, he laments, “incapable of reason,” indicated by their eating at Arby’s), and a horndog too, using his smarmy charm to pick up a couple of different women over the course of this first episode.

The one woman Coleman can’t seduce is his ex, Dorothy Crane (JoAnna Garcia Swisher). She arrives on scene a few minutes into the episode to announce that Eleanor Crane, her grandmother, has died and left her the hospital. When Dorothy adds that she’s going to institute changes, so the place runs more efficiently, Coleman first bristles and quits, then decides that maybe he can work with her after all. And so we have a series — a series that desperately wants to have a will-they-or-won’t-they romance at its center.

This comes with immediate visible problems, mainly that Kirk and Swisher have zero chemistry together. Swisher’s called on to play straight man to Kirk’s shenanigans (a role that looks exhausting), but the two never connect. More to the point, Coleman is an unlikable main character, which puts the onus on the supporting cast to be appealing while the audience presumably gets to know him beyond his “I hate people without exception” exterior.

That cast faces obstacles from the start. Among the top-billed players is Crystal the monkey, whom you may recall from her performances in Night at the Museum and The Hangover II. Here she plays “Doctor” Rizzo, a capuchin who apparently lives in the hospital and wears a lab coat and scrub pants and gets into wacky hijinks with the gang. It’s hard to criticize Crystal, as she delivers grimaces and screeches on cue, but I pity the humans who are playing second fiddle to a monkey. Not to mention, a penguin, a pig, a chicken, a boa constrictor, and even a tiger.

Given this context, we might not be surprised that the human parts are written as stereotypes. Angela (Betsy Sodaro) is a slobby nurse with heaps of attitude who makes inappropriate jokes and talks about her sexual relationship with her parole officer. (She seems modeled on Melissa McCarthy’s character in Bridesmaids, without the subtlety.) Sodaro puts a lot of energy into her brief moments on screen, but that energy doesn’t make up for the fact that she’s playing a second-rate knockoff character.

One broad joke after another falls flat in this pilot episode (“It’s order by disorder,” Coleman claims), Animal Practice often resorts to Crystal doing something (hey, look at this monkey close a door!) to salvage a laugh out of a scene. Even the usually reliable Tyler Labine (a good actor who can’t seem to catch a break on American TV: see Invasion or Reaper) fails to generate laughs in a surprisingly low-key role, as Coleman’s saner colleague.

Sometimes a comedy pilot looks half-formed, as if the producers are still figuring out what each character is going to be or how the show will operate on an episode-by-episode basis. This isn’t that kind of pilot. Animal Practice seems to know exactly what it wants to do, it just isn’t any good at it.

RATING 3 / 10