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TV Weekend: Animal Practice

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Neil Jacobs/NBC

When NBC announced its new sitcom Animal Practice—a.k.a. That One Show With the Monkey In It—plenty of critics, myself included, leapt into the trees to fling, um, stuff at it: so this is what it’s finally come to! In truth, there’s no reason a TV show co-starring a monkey can’t be great. I still have abiding fond memories of Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp.* In fact, there’s a storied tradition of multiprimate shows, not just on TV in general but on NBC in particular. The Today show had J. Fred Muggs. Friends had Marcel. Community has Annie’s Boobs (played by Crystal, who now costars in Animal Practice). BJ and the Bear? Hell, yeah that was NBC! If anything, you could argue that NBC has betrayed its traditions by not having enough series with monkeys in them.

* (I know, I know: Not technically a monkey. Bring on the primate pedantry!)

So whatever problems Animal Practice (previewing after the Olympics Aug. 12) has, don’t blame the monkey. Crystal, who plays Dr. Rizzo, the mascot/assistant in a veterinary hospital run by dedicated but irascible Dr. George Coleman (Justin Kirk), is a delight whenever she—it’s a she—waddles or drives a tiny ambulance through a scene. And despite what the series promotions might suggest, the pilot doesn’t overuse her. A little monkey goes a long way.

It’s the humans, and the situations they’re set up in, that I already feel we’ve seen too much of. There’s not a dynamic on the show that doesn’t feel transplanted from another donor sitcom. We have the cynical, skirt-chasing protagonist who just can’t play by the rules (he loves animals, it’s their owners he has a problem with, &c.). There’s the uptight hospital owner (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), the uptight ex-girlfriend who rides herd on him and shakes her head at his monkeyshines. There are the eccentric supporting characters, all of whom feel like various outtakes from Scrubs.

NBC has thrown plenty of talent at the screen here, and I don’t just mean Crystal. I too am conditioned to expect a good time at the site of Tyler Labine, here playing a Tyler Labine sidekick role. Swisher is a better choice in a role that was recast from an early pilot, but there’s nothing interesting in her wet-blanket role so far. And Kirk is a dryly funny actor, but the first episode gives him little to latch on to when it tries to layer deeper characterization on top of his wisecracks and verbal sparring.

On the bright side, there are some funny set pieces in the pilot, and enough fruitful interactions with the patients and their troublesome owners that I could see this show developing into a kind of Scrubs with rabies shots, if the characters can develop beyond the familiar menagerie we start out with. For now, the diagnosis I’d give Animal Practice is much like the way Dr. Coleman sees his patients. The animals are fine—it’s the humans who can use fixing.