Though earlier episodes broke ground, the second-season finale of 'Central Park' scales back to its detriment.
- 🎤 The choice to animate large chunks of the episode with Lego-style characters is clever.
- 🎤 The various fantasy tie-ins to modern movies is smart.
- 🎤 Each of the Tillerman fantasies is weirdly compelling.
- 🎤 Owen's decision about whether to stay or move from Central Park is obvious from the start.
- 🎤 The story's tiny scope may be intentional, but seems a dull capper to the season.
- 🎤 The show has yet to balance the Tillermans with Bitsy or Birdie.
This post contains spoilers for Central Park.
Check out our last review here.
Watching the second-season finale of Central Park, it’s hard not to wonder if the pandemic robbed us of a couple installments due to the general insanity of how production schedules got upended. The first season of the Apple TV+ animated musical comedy was 10 episodes long, but this sophomore effort is just 8 episodes long, and as it wraps up with “Sir Bricks-a-Lot”, Central Park managed to still be enjoyable enough while potentially suffering from what feels like an unexpectedly truncated season. While the episode’s premise works well for a season finale, it feels like an episode from a different season.
The concept is simple enough: Owen (voiced by Leslie Odom, Jr.) has been offered a position as the park designer at a tony college called Kingsley University, and he has until the end of the day to make his decision. Will he leave Central Park and bring the Tillerman brood with him to Connecticut and the vaunted halls of Kingsley? Or is he unable to uproot the family, and stay in his current situation? It will come as no surprise to anyone watching the show, or reading this review, that in a series called Central Park, the main character chooses to stay in...Central Park. But while Owen wrestles with the decision throughout the episode, his wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), and kids Molly (Emmy Raver-Lampman) and Cole (Tituss Burgess) encourage him and each other to act out their ideal fantasies of what might happen if they move, all with the help of building blocks meant to be Legos (without actually using that brand name).
First, Molly reveals that her ideal would be that, Good Will Hunting-style, she’d be discovered as an artistic prodigy by a fusty professor (Paul F. Tompkins) who challenges his students to draw an impossible drawing. (That impossible drawing is of a turtle playing basketball underwater, Garfield-style. What does “Garfield-style” mean? “Exactly!” Molly shouts to her family.) Paige reveals that her ideal fantasy upon moving to Connecticut would involve her leaving journalism behind and becoming a widely celebrated novelist, so beloved for a best-selling series of books that she would wind up in her own movie-inspired twist. Specifically, Paige envisions herself in a Misery-style thriller wherein a fan named Margarett, with two “t”’s, abducts her and forces her to write a new story. Oh, and Margarett is visualized as none other than Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci). Cole’s story is E.T.-inspired, as he imagines moving to Connecticut and finding a cuddly alien who’s pursued by government agents, visualized here by Helen (Daveed Diggs).
Owen himself is, as you would expect, mostly overcome by neuroses by the very opportunity at Kingsley. He goes last, revealing a sumptuous park design (at least, as sumptuous as Lego-style bricks can make a park look). But then, when all is said and done, Owen reveals that as nice as it is, he doesn’t want to leave Central Park. And with that, so does every other Tillerman, explaining that their current setup is far more ideal to anything they were imagining.
Here’s the thing: it’s not remotely surprising that this is how the episode, and the season, concludes. Not only have we not been teased that often with the prospect of Owen working at another location, but as mentioned above...the show is called Central Park. Of course Owen’s going to stay there. If he had somehow decided to leave, no doubt the third season would start with plot machinations designed to bring him back. That the Tillermans choose to stay is fine -- the problem is that we spend so much time in “Sir Bricks-a-Lot” with the family going through seemingly detailed and convincing reasons to leave, even though their fantasies aren’t remotely tethered to reality. Perhaps if each of the fantasies devolved into nightmares, the reveal that none of the Tillermans want to leave would work more effectively. Instead, the episode feels like the show trying to do something different with a fairly hoary TV-comedy trope, in which a character is teased with the possibility of breaking out of their agreed-upon location.
As Central Park now ends its second season, too, the show’s most obvious flaws remain, and are likely to not be too vastly improved upon. As usual, there’s the presence of Birdie (co-creator Josh Gad), who’s just as removed as he always is from the Tillerman brood. He spends most of the episode watching them from a tree, making a few comments but mostly just laying out the exposition without doing much else. And while it’s fun to hear Tucci and Diggs in slightly different contexts than we usually find Bitsy and Helen, their presence in the Tillermans’ fantasies only emphasizes how removed they’ve been from the story this year. These are immensely talented actors, but the conniving Bitsy of the start of the season mostly vanished, with a handful of possible schemes that come to nothing. (This makes the notion of Paige still trying to write a big expose on Bitsy a little confusing -- little this season has been made of her trying to take down the socialite, outside of one subplot in one episode.)
The other pressing issue with Central Park is that its two standout episodes in the second season, “Fista Puffs Mets Out Justice” and “The Shadow”, are the two episodes that took extreme turns away from the standard storytelling model. When this show operates with its basic split focus between the Tillermans and Bitsy, it’s solid and enjoyable enough. But those episodes were special in ways that the rest of the season was not. Episodes like “Sir Bricks-a-Lot” are fun, and they handle the blend of music with comedy better than some early Season 1 installments did, to be fair.
But Central Park continues to be a moderately enjoyable show that has the infrequent ability to be brilliant. So it’s still a bit frustrating to watch and hope that each episode is going to hit those same heights. As we enter a new chapter of the pandemic, it’s enough to still hold out a bit of confidence that this show’s already-renewed third season can be more focused and break out of its mold in new ways. Central Park can be great. Maybe the third time will be the charm.
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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