Central Park returns to Apple TV+ on Friday with more singing, dancing, rapid-fire jokes that aren’t funny and plots that go nowhere.
The third season of the cartoon from Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard, star Josh Gad and writer Nora Smith does the usual spinning in extravagant circles without gaining any momentum. And unfortunately, the songs don’t forward the plot, such as it is.
Central Park season 3 review
Season 3, episodes 1-3: As Central Park season three begins, park ranger Owen Tillerman (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.); his wife, Paige (Kathryn Hahn); their son, Cole (Tituss Burgess); and their daughter, Molly (Emmy Raver-Lampman), are still living in a castle in the middle of New York City’s famous park. Josh Gad still voices the homeless minstrel who lives outside their house. Hotel mogul Bitsy (Stanley Tucci) and her live-in assistant, Helen (Daveed Diggs), are still evil and trying to take over New York.
They still don’t really have problems, but every episode, they sing songs that double as pleas for whatever microscopic goals they develop that week.
3 episodes, nothing new
Episode one finds Owen ruining a TV shoot overseen by a director (Ken Marino) who seems cool at first. However, the director gets more and more stressed with every request Owen makes for the park to seem more beautiful and natural — and not a dangerous place filled with trees that kill people. They finally fire Owen from the set. He meets the interim mayor (Sam Richardson), who’s in office because Paige’s reporting got the last mayor to resign. Bitsy wants to buy off the mayor so she can have her way on city issues.
In the second episode, Paige’s sister Abby (Kristen Bell) moves to New York from the Midwest to become an actress. (Bell’s return appearance is kind of grimly hilarious. She initially supplied Molly’s voice, until people complained that that was a dodgy and weird thing to do. But hey, Bell’s one of those actors who likes singing, and she’s clearly friends with Central Park’s creators. Musical theater people run in herds, so they couldn’t not have her on this show.)
Abby books an appointment to have headshots made with a local photographer (Mark Proksch) who Paige doesn’t trust because he’s so affordable. His big secret is that he’s really an animal photographer (who has squeaky toys shaped like dildos for some reason. That counts as a joke, right?).
In the third episode, Molly’s boyfriend (Eugene Cordero) makes a romantic faux pas, triggering their first fight. Bitsy meets the mayor and blows it when trying to seem humble and humane. Plus, Abby books her first commercial gig.
If at first you don’t succeed
There’s no law that says your show has to be about something, but there’s also no denying that Central Park strains to justify itself every few minutes. The show has nothing like a compelling reason for the characters to create drama during the normal course of their days, because every character is written exactly the same.
Traditionally in a musical, people sing to express what they can’t just say; it’s a commanding augmentation of an emotional argument. That’s not a 100% rule or anything (Gilbert and Sullivan had their characters sing mundane place settings, too). But pick your favorite musical and think about what each song is about.
By contrast, every single song on Central Park is a comma. A plot point is invented (for instance, Molly and Cole competing to make a better dessert for Abby), and then 30 seconds later there’s a song that restates it (they sing about how they’re better at making dessert).
What’s the point exactly?
I understand that every single cartoon/sitcom can’t always brim with purpose, but it never ever feels like the writers of this show figure out the best use of screen time, so much as they come up with thin song premises and build the episodes around the tunes.
The most glaring example of the show’s directionlessness can be found in the attempts made to give Owen an arc this season. He’s animated by a mission to make sure that New Yorkers … show more appreciation for Central Park?!? It’s probably the single busiest place in New York on any given day. I don’t know how much more they could appreciate it. But without something driving him, his character is just some guy with a job. Not a terribly interesting idea, but giving him such a perfunctory, borderline nonsensical goal isn’t any better.
The returning songwriters (including Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Brent Knopf, Regina Spektor, Rafael Casal, Supercommuter and Mike Viola) are now joined by Garfunkel and Oates, Jesse Carmichael and Samantha Shelton, Open Mike Eagle, Ester Dean, Helen Park, Mike Shinoda, Emily King and Germaine Franco. They’re all hamstrung by tone and form. Every song must either be excruciatingly cute or a kind of audience-friendly rap song for Diggs. (Admittedly, the production on those songs is frequently pretty good.)
Central Park feels stuck to a cloying degree in its episode format — three songs between rapid-fire dialogue and jokes that never once land. When the mayor visits Bitsy, they invent the detail that he grew up in his parent’s laundromat, which then leads them to check out the industrial washing machines in the hotel and a song about laundry, which for some reason the mayor doesn’t understand despite having been raised in a laundromat.
Central Park, where literally nothing matters
Nothing ever matters on this show, which would be fine if the songs, the plot, the dialogue, the performances or the animation was good, interesting or both. That is just not the case.
So you’re having speed-run conversations and jokes jammed into your ears. (If you never make sense of anything anyone says, that’s just fine. The dialogue wasn’t written to be remembered, but to be white noise between musical numbers.) And then you hear songs by some of the world’s most inoffensive songwriters, all with Bouchard’s trademark unimaginative, chinless animation.
Central Park is just not a pleasant place to be. And I kind of can’t believe that Apple TV+ is releasing these episodes a week at a time for individual review. Every episode is exactly the same.
And so for this reason, Cult of Mac is going to skip covering the show going forward. It’s a poor waste of you, the reader’s time, to read recaps of a cartoon with this little thought put into anything but the songs, as if the plot is what the show is about anyway.
You know by now if the show is for you. And rather than make you read my complaints about the format over and over again, we’ll just say (having seen the whole season) that nothing changes between the first three episodes and the 13th. The musical theater industrial complex is a mighty, hungry beast, nd actors need to sing.
So here is season three of Central Park. Enjoy it or don’t — it’ll undoubtedly return for a fourth pointless season anyway.
Watch Central Park on Apple TV+
New episodes of Central Park arrive on Apple TV+ on Fridays.
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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.