Central Park, the Apple TV+ animated musical about a family living and caring for the titular New York park, returns for more arbitrary, up-with-people high-jinks in its second season.
Nothing brings out the worst impulses in a writer’s room like encouragement. And the second season of the show — created by Bob’s Burgers duo Nora Smith and Loren Bouchard along with Josh Gad (Frozen) — is aggressively larger and more precious than the first. If it’s not your thing, you’ll be looking for the nearest open window.
Central Park Season 2 review
If you didn’t watch the first season of Central Park, first of all: lucky you!
Second of all, the show is about park ranger Owen (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.); his wife, Paige (Kathryn Hahn); their son, Cole (Tituss Burgess); and their daughter, Molly (Emmy Raver-Lampman). (Raver-Lampman replaced Kristen Bell after she quit, following Jenny Slate’s similar move to stop playing a mixed-race character on Netflix’s Big Mouth).
In the second season, the show’s writing and vocal deliveries speed up to fit in twice as many labored jokes. The songcraft remains just as boring and cutesy as last season, though. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but it did sound especially auto-tuned this time around.
I know there’s an audience for this. My older sister would probably love this if she had Apple TV+. However, it really cannot be overstated that if you dislike even a single element in this show’s DNA, you’ll react like the first audience at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées the night of the “Rite of Spring” premiere.
A sitcom with songs
The Central Park writers essentially abandoned the idea of a continuous story for the show, adopting more of a standard sitcom format. This highlights the fact that none of the songs have much of anything to do with the characters or the events of the show.
In this season’s first episode, Bitsy and Helen go to a conference in Weehawken, New Jersey, so the former can humiliate her colleagues there. This is preempted by a rap song Diggs performs about the town, including — of course! — a reference to Hamilton, the musical that elevated him and co-star Odom to fame.
Central Park can’t afford to go even a few minutes without reminding its audience of Hamilton or else the cheap high of proximity to the phenomenon might fade. You have to wonder if at some point Diggs and Odom, two very charismatic and talented performers, will get tired of constantly having their first major gig brought up wherever they go.
The Apple TV+ touch
Apple TV+ very carefully curates its bought and commissioned shows to present a general message of helping out your fellow man. Despite some exceptions, civic duty and pride remain a pretty consistent element of Apple TV+ programming. Home Before Dark, The Me You Can’t See, Becoming You, Dear…, Home, Helpsters, Ted Lasso, Trying, Dads, Here We Are, Palmer, Long Way Up, The Year Earth Changed … each of these are quite purposely about examining our place in society and how we might make it a little better.
Some are documentaries that double as public service announcements. Some are fiction about the little ways people can make a difference. And all of them are geared toward getting us to be nicer to each other, our communities or, more broadly, the planet.
And now for a rant about Broadway
Central Park plays like all of those impulses were shoved into a box far too small to carry them all and the lid on that box is being held down by this show’s more populist and ego-centric impulses. Sure, it could be a little more about the importance of parks in America, or even more broadly about pollution and global climate change, the ever-changing face of New York into a city of haves and have-nots (thanks in no small part to things like Hamilton keeping a steady influx of visitors coming to midtown Manhattan).
In order for Central Park to be the show it seems to want to be, there’d have to be far fewer breaks for excruciating modern musical theater. But then that is the sort of broad paradox of musical theater: Every few years a show debuts that seems to portend real change, that really wants to make you think about the way the world works and how much better it could be.
This then debuts to millions of indifferent tourists. The stars get contracts to be on shows like Central Park. And no one really does any thinking about what the Broadway show was really about, which becomes easier with each passing year it remains onstage. Rent, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton — these shows didn’t really change anything outside of the machinery of Broadway itself. People just know the songs from Hamilton now. There wasn’t a popular move back to Federalism or anything.
Broadway is a thoroughly indifferent place that only progresses occasionally when actors get rich enough to demand equity on behalf of its myriad craftspeople, and they all became even more compromised movies for billion-dollar companies. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about Mike Pence showing up to see Hamilton, and the cast performing the whole show for him before then asking him to stop being a famous homophobic racist figurehead.
It had long been difficult for me to take seriously the idea that singing and dancing for crowds at a hundred dollars a ticket could ever enact social change. Moments like the Pence lecture are no more disheartening than the cultural byproduct of new Broadway.
Central Park’s central problem
I watch Central Park and I think about Lin-Manuel Miranda helping to open Puerto Rico up to predatory capitalists like Brock Pierce. Or the trailer for the Dear Evan Hansen movie, which shows original star Ben Platt playing a high-schooler despite the fact that he looks twice as old as his 27 years.
This industry is about money, it’s about ego, and it’s about making sure the ride never stops.
Central Park is suitably obsessed with its own musical theater lineage to the frequent exclusion of its generic “we’re all in this together” politics. (Never mind that one of its characters is a drunken billionaire out to ruin New York, whom the show likes anyway.)
The show offers further proof that no matter what your intentions as a musical theater artist may be, it seems inevitably you’ll wind up doing sitcom shtick a few years later, your dreams of changing the world through song a distant memory.
Central Park on Apple TV+
Season 2 of Central Park premieres June 25 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.