Animator Loren Bouchard first opened the doors on “Bob’s Burgers” back in 2011, telling a working-class narrative about a dysfunctionally loving family struggling to keep their oceanside burger joint afloat despite the efforts of competing restaurants, vengeful health inspectors, and their pernicious kooky landlord to put them out of business. The series determinedly downplays politics: Bouchard and his writers prioritize the Belcher clan first and baked-in socioeconomic concerns second, letting interactions between the former tease out the latter. Bouchard’s new show, “Central Park,” treats both elements with equal urgency, which is for the best if only to differentiate it from “Bob’s Burgers.”
“Central Park” takes place in Central Park, much like “Bob’s Burgers” revolves around Bob’s Burgers. If you want to watch a show about a guy flipping patties with his family in the restaurant, you tune in to “Bob’s Burgers,” and if you want to watch a show about the mayor of Central Park defending his municipal garden domain from a greedy, entitled billionaire harridan, you watch “Central Park.” The two programs align in ways that we’ll all maybe one day refer to as “Bouchardian”—they’re both about wacky families doing their best to get by, they both run on engines full of irreverence, they’re both sweet at their cores, they’re both stacked with guest stars voicing colorful side characters, and they’re both about the class war waged in America by Americans against Americans every goddamn day of the week.
The big difference is the musicality. Music isn’t alien to “Bob’s Burgers”—start with Season 1 episode, “Hamburger Dinner Theater,” and go from there—but it isn’t fundamental to the show’s identity. “Central Park,” by sharp contrast, is an animated musical, and the casting reflects the bent: Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, and Tituss Burgess, musical vets all, lead the troupe, which Bouchard has rounded out with Kathryn Han and Stanley Tucci. (Worth noting: Gad also serves as the series’ co-creator alongside Bouchard and Nora Smith.) Bouchard and the folks at Apple TV+ have spared no expense on bona fides, but here’s the thing about not sparing expense—it pays off.
“Central Park” starts with Birdie (Gad), the show’s narrator-cum-troubadour, giving viewers a rundown of what makes the space so special (short answer: everything, even stuff that’s gross, seedy, or just plain weird) before creeping on chez Tillerman, a castle right in the heart of the park where resides Bouchard’s misfit leading clan: Father Owen (Odom), mother Paige (Han), and their two kids, Cole (Burgess) and Molly (Bell). Owen is the park manager, Paige is a journalist, Cole is a gentle soul, and Molly is a basket case the same way that, oh, say, Louise from “Bob’s Burgers” is a basket case. Frankly, they’re each a few Advils short of a full medicine cabinet, but that’s the Bouchard charm. People love his characters precisely because they’re halfway to full goose bozo.
Besides, as off-kilter as the Tillermans may be, “Central Park,” like “Bob’s Burgers,” puts forth that it’s really the wealthy who are out of their gilded gourds. See, Central Park has an enemy: Bitsy Brandenham (Tucci), a rotten, spoiled, vindictive, and ancient battleax occupying a multi-kajillion dollar highrise overlooking the park. Bitter ol’ Bitsy regards the greenery as an eyesore and conspires with her vexed assistant Helen (Diggs) to wreck up the place and pave it over with shops, condos, and other assorted monuments to unchecked commercial greed. She’s the worst.
“Central Park” ditches the conventional single-episode storylines and hangs onto one driving plot throughout the season— the shadow campaign Bitsy kicks off to buy the park and sacrifice it at the altar of capitalism and the Tillermans’ resistance to her avarice. Each chapter builds off that premise with song, dance, kindness, and Bouchard’s trademarked brand of everyman eccentricity. Picture “Parks and Recreation” colliding with “Bob’s Burgers” and you have the right idea.
Owen’s job sets him at odds with bureaucracy and befouling park guests. In the margins, Paige tries to prove her reporter bona fides by breaking a big story about the park’s sudden defunding, Bitsy schemes to get the park defunded, Cole bonds with Bitsy’s too-good-for-her dog, and Molly crushes on a cute boy who flies kites in the park as a hobby when she isn’t indulging her own hobby of drawing comic book panels. Their various desires and idiosyncrasies don’t typically intersect with Owen’s labors, as the Tillermans enjoy a more broadly defined self -agency, a quality that dovetails well with the musical structure.
Music producer, Frank Ciampi, erstwhile composer for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” gets to play around in a rainbow of genres, ranging from rhapsodic Broadway-style numbers to hip-hop to pop, and each song lets individual cast members flex their vocal muscles, Bell and Odom being the two who shine brightest. There’s joy in the music, aided by the bright elastic animation, and a sense of purpose, too: “Central Park” openly defies, with tongue in cheek and a skip in its step, billionaire culture, arguing that it’s the duty of the people to stand up against their culturally smothering cupidity. Good as the entire cast is—and they are all very, very good—it’s Tucci’s casting as Bitsy that feels like Bouchard’s best stroke of genius. Tucci knows how to bring Bitsy just up to the edge of appearing empathetic before dialing back her humanity and slamming the gas on her insufferable awfulness, with Diggs dryly grousing from the sidelines.
Bell, Han, Odom, and Burgess, meanwhile, gel beautifully as a family. There’s a lot of love in the Tillerman household, as well as a lot of quirk and a wonderful, low-key portrait of the biracial American family—a detail “Central Park” doesn’t editorialize but which likely will change for the better the way most viewers will engage with the story. It’s to the show’s benefit that race is pictured but, like the class politics of “Bob’s Burgers,” downplayed, giving audiences a view of contemporary America via upfront representation. Maybe these two shows aren’t that different after all. [A-]
“Central Park” premieres on Apple TV+ on May 29.