What to Watch Verdict
Another solid episode of 'Central Park' that would be much better without the nefarious Bitsy Brandenham.
🎤Keith David is a fun addition to the stable of guest stars.
🎤More great performances from Leslie Odom, Jr. and the cast.
🎤A delightfully silly subplot with the Tillerman kids.
🎤The Bitsy/Helen story remains useless.
🎤Josh Gad's narrator cannot avoid being superfluous.
🎤Halfway through the season, the narrative arc is unformed.
This post contains spoilers for Central Park.
Check out our last review here.
With “Of Course You Realize This Means War”, Central Park approaches the halfway point of its second season of at least three. (Remember, Apple TV+ has already picked the series up for next season.) After the final part of last week’s three-episode premiere broke format pretty stridently, things are back to relative normal in this episode. What that means is simple enough: there are three stories, a handful of songs, and at least two or three characters who don’t even need to be around.
If you know Central Park well enough to have watched its first season, you no doubt remember that the major story thrust was that Bitsy Brandenham (voiced by Stanley Tucci) wanted to buy Central Park and turn it into a real-estate development, gutting the parks and recreation services overseen by park manager Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom, Jr.). Of course, there wouldn’t be a terribly fun show if Bitsy got her way, and the season ended with the sense that while the Bitsys of the world would try their best, people like Owen and his family could stop them from their selfish ways.
The first three episodes of the new season mostly avoided any revival of Bitsy’s desire to own Central Park. The first episode hinted at some secret development plans that other rich developers wanted to get their hands on. But it’s only at the outset of this episode that Bitsy reminds her assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs) that she views the chance to buy Central Park as the cementing factor of her legacy. And legacy is on her mind because she wants to write her memoirs, a creative choice that gets placed into high gear when she realizes her brother Ambrose (Ed Asner) is writing his own memoirs at the same time.
But the Brandenham side of things is mostly relegated to a useless subplot. Only one member of the Brandenham family interacts with the Tillerman brood, and that would be Brandon (Eugene Cordero), the would-be boyfriend of Molly (Emmy Raver-Lampmann). As much as it remains mildly fun to hear Tucci and Diggs diving into a more outlandish side of the story, it’s very hard to understand why Bitsy’s still part of this show for creative reasons. Her subplot starts as being rooted to the chance to buy Central Park, but ends with her barely getting one over on Ambrose, as their publisher realizes that neither Bitsy nor Ambrose actually wrote a memoir. (But Bitsy’s seems to have more actual sentences, allowing her a mild victory.)
The rest of the episode feels very much like a show that would be vastly more effective, even with the still-unnecessary narration courtesy of Josh Gad’s busker character. He, at least, gets in on the action centered in the A-plot, in which Owen is preparing for a major yearly event in which schoolchildren around the NYC area come to hear about the value of preserving nature in Central Park. Owen’s wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn) uses her journalistic sleuthing skills to search out Dr. Ward Whitlinger (voiced by the mellifluous Keith David), a previously inspirational figure in Owen’s life, only for them all to realize as soon as he gets up to speak to the kids that the man who used to value the power of nature now believes that we’ve ruined the climate so much that there’s no saving it and no use in trying to. (This, sadly, may be closer to true than anyone wants to admit, but it’s also not a great message to pass onto youngsters.)
This part of “Of Course You Realize This Means War” follows a few predictable tropes, but as is often the case with Central Park, it’s the use of music that allows the story to feel fresh and new. Owen and the rest of the park rangers are duly horrified by Whitlinger's blunt and about-face speech, and quickly hop to it to perform a song to combat the elder character’s nihilism. This is also one of the few times when Gad’s character is able to join in on the fun, actually performing next to Owen. (And of course, once the song ends, and he tries to encourage everyone else to get a new band together, they shoot down the idea. It’s a funny gag, but another moment when the show all but asks why the narrator even exists.)
Molly and Cole (Tituss Burgess), meanwhile, spend time with the aforementioned Brandon as he prepares for an indoor kite-flying competition -- a combination of words that fills Cole with delight -- and quickly overtake his modest aims to win the competition into a flamboyant, flowery pageantry of sorts, akin to the most gaudily-costumed figure skaters. Considering that Molly’s tentative relationship with Brandon was a key plot of the first season, it’s nice to have the character return as the show hits the halfway point of this new set of episodes.
This two-thirds of the episode is what Central Park should be. If the show could trim down the fat of Bitsy and Helen’s various acidic misadventures, a gender-swapped and neutered-down version of the Mr. Burns/Waylon Smithers relationship on The Simpsons, it could be truly something special. For now, as the last few episodes of the season dangle in the distance, it’s at least good to know that enough of the show works to make it enjoyable, with the pacing being so fast that there’s next to no way that Bitsy and Helen would ever be so much of an albatross as to make the whole show unpleasant or downbeat. But there's a very clear path to make this show brilliant. Maybe by the third season, the creative staff will take that path.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.
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