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Fox’s Animal Control Completely Misunderstands Joel McHale’s Appeal

The comedy is the latest TV show to squander the Community alum’s comic persona.
  • Joel McHale and Michael Rowland in Animal Control (Photo: Michael Courtney/FOX)
    Joel McHale and Michael Rowland in Animal Control (Photo: Michael Courtney/FOX)

    Someone needs to help Joel McHale. Despite being smart, funny, and handsome, he's slid into a tar pit of terrible projects that’s threatening to swallow him up forever. The latest (and perhaps most depressing) is Animal Control, a Fox sitcom that spectacularly misunderstands what made him appealing during his time on Community and The Soup. It distorts his once reliable comic persona into something sour and small.

    From a distance, it’s easy to see what series creators Bob Fisher and Rob Greenberg were going for. McHale (who also executive produces) plays Frank, a former detective who got busted down to the animal control unit after blowing the whistle on department corruption. Now he spends his days getting weasels out of attics and boa constrictors off people’s necks. That’s a good setup for the snarky absurdism that made McHale a star. He’s great at playing the smartest guy in the room, inviting viewers to laugh with him at whatever he’s mocking today, and Frank could certainly be the audience surrogate in a goofy series like this, where rabbits go wild after eating psychedelic mushrooms.

    But the secret of both Community, a surreal comedy set at a community college, and The Soup, a talk show that made fun of other talk shows, was that McHale didn’t just dunk on people. He also clearly relished their antics, and he wasn’t afraid to get foolish himself. Consider the scene in Community in which his character Jeff strips naked during a game of pool, just to prove he’s committed to the integrity of the game. Jeff is quite happy to scorn his classmates, but in a moment like this, his passion makes him as silly as they are. Because he cares about something, he becomes more than just a judgmental hate machine, and that allows McHale to shade his performance with softness and joy. That was frequently the case on The Soup, too, where he was willing to riff on a video of Bindi Irwin by dressing up in a bear costume and playing a stuffed seal like a bongo drum. Those self-effacing, crackpot stunts put some honey in his vinegary persona.

    In Animal Control, Frank is all vinegar. It’s immediately established that he loathes his partner Fred (Michael Rowland), a former snowboarder who loves his new job with puppyish enthusiasm. Even though he’s got a grudging respect for the kid by the end of Episode 3, he never stops brutally insulting him or forcing him out of their work truck for having the wrong opinions. Meanwhile, he regularly “jokes” about how much he hates his father or how he’s planning to sleep with every woman in the office. If his zingers had any kind of wit, then they might be offensively delightful, but they’re all just artless clunkers. When he’s talking about romance being like a game of chess, all he can muster is, “The hot vet and me! Knight to queen four!” That makes Frank sound like a loser, not a bon vivant.

    He’s also, quite frankly, a jerk. In multiple episodes he devises complicated pranks for the sole purpose of humiliating other people, then films their shame so he can email it around. There’s none of the whimsy or self-mockery from McHale’s best work. It’s all just bullying, and it leaves a bitter taste.

    This would be dispiriting enough if Animal Control were the first sitcom to misuse McHale in this way, but it’s the second. In the 2016 CBS series The Great Indoors, McHale plays Jack, a writer for an adventure travel magazine who’s forced to stop touring the jungle and instead start working in the office with a group of millennials who prefer to live entirely on their computers. Once again, we’ve got a curmudgeon who despises his colleagues and mocks them with badly written jokes. (He describes an emotional support animal as “one of those special dogs that weird people can take anywhere.”) At 2:20 in this extended trailer, Jack even describes himself as a “lone wolf,” which is exactly how Frank describes himself in the first scene of Animal Control.

    The Great Indoors was poorly reviewed and only lasted a season, which certainly seems like a clue that McHale should’ve avoided similar projects. Yet with Animal Control, he’s just repeating the same mistakes. If he’s trying to recapture that old Community magic, then he needs a role that’s a little more “naked pool” and a little less “unrepentant bastard.”

    Animal Control premieres February 16 at 9:00 PM ET on Fox. New episodes Thursdays. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Animal Control, FOX, Community, The Great Indoors, The Soup, Bob Fisher, Joel McHale, Michael Rowland, Rob Greenberg