NBC did not exactly earn itself warm fuzzies from the Olympic audience it hopes to entice to its new fall series last night when the network interrupted coverage of the London closing ceremonies to preview Animal Practice, its new sitcom starring Justin Kirk as Dr. George Coleman, a veterinarian in the Gregory House model, JoAnna Garcia Swisher as Dorothy, the woman who owns the hospital where he works, and Crystal the Monkey, who receives third billing on the show as Dr. Rizzo, a primate with a medical license, or at least, a tiny ambulance and sets of scrubs. That billing is important. As NBC tries to retool itself, the network is offering up shows for the Law & Order set in Chicago Fire, the CBS set in Guys With Kids, and the Glee set with Ryan Murphy’s sitcom The New Normal. Go On, which did a test premiere last week to generally strong ratings, is its effort to make the Community formula emotionally accessible to a broader audience. Animal Practice, which comes from Community producers Anthony and Joe Russo, feels a bit like a vengeful slap at that sitcom’s audience, a “You wanted smart and spiky and weird? Fine. We’ll give you smart and spiky and weird. And a monkey.”
Part of the problem with the show is George himself. I love me some Justin Kirk, but it’s tiresome to watch him play yet another TV asshole whose jerkdom is meant to be excusable and adorable because Dorothy dumped him after he failed to provide basic emotional reciprocity in their relationship. In Community, the self-sabotage and self-deception that landed Jeff Winger at Greendale was fascinating — why would an obviously talented man fake his college degree when he could have easily graduated? In Go On, Ryan’s grieving his wife, giving the problems he’s trying to face some actual emotional heft. But it’s hard for me to sympathize with a jerk who pain comes from immaturity rather than a deep wronging or a reckoning with the way he’s brought harm upon himself. It’s not really charming or awesome to watch George offer to sleep with a depressed patient whose even more depressed cat tried to commit suicide, as happens in the opening to the show: I’m not really in the mood to celebrate George’s skills as a lothario before I even have any sense of whether I like him or not.
Beyond innuendo and crankiness towards Dorothy, it seems George’s schtick is using animal science to diagnose the people around him. He tells Doug, his newly-single and down-at-the-mouth colleague that he needs to reestablish his primacy. “I’m not a primate,” Doug grouses. “I live in Brooklyn, I get my food from Fresh Direct, I have opposable thumbs.” But he lets George take him girl-shopping based on what dogs women are taking to the park, and later, George hooks Doug up, which I suppose is what counts for altruism in the show. It’s not a terrible joke, but it’s not transformatively clever, either. In place of Community’s commentary on pop culture, Animal Practice has the doctors betting on horse races that include some of their former patients, and betting on turtle races where the hamsters act as jockeys. The latter, in particular, and Rizzo’s presence are cute and memeable, but adorable animal juxtapositions do not a show make unless you’re the National Geographic Channel.
And the animals are used more creatively than the humans. Animal Practice, like Go On, has the virtue of an extremely diverse cast, but falls immediately into stereotype humor. Kim Whitely is Juanita, the African-American nurse who keeps George and Dorothy’s menagerie of a hospital running with some semblance of order. Betsy Sodaro is Angela, who because she is somewhat heavier and less conventionally pretty than Swisher, must by the laws of dumb comedy be oversexed, weird, and loud. “I am not peeing in a cup unless it’s for money. Or love,” she tells Dorothy. And as Dr. Yamomoto, Bobby Lee is moderately less stereotypical than Matthew Moy’s Han Lee on 2 Broke Girls, though that may simply be because he’s a doctor rather than a diner owner and because Animal Practice hasn’t been on the air long enough to joke about his penis. Animal Practice literally has him tell Dorothy “You’re a really bad lady. You’re worse than my wife. But you’re really sexy,” as if being Asian-American means that you can achieve a veterinary degree but only basic command of English.
I don’t like to judge comedies on their pilots, but Animal Practice is throwing up a lot of warning signs for me. A diverse cast should be a chance to have a richer show, rather than to check boxes and revert to stereotype humor. Jerks need justification, and to be humbled sometimes. And if the biggest selling point on your show is a monkey, that doesn’t show much trust in your stories about humans, or the talented people who have agreed to play them.