The animated musical series Central Park is the brainchild of Josh Gad and Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard and writer Nora Smith. But you don’t need me to tell you that. One look at the characters’ designs ought to be more than enough evidence they’re from the same universe (or at least the same animation studio) as the Belchers. It’s a little hard not to think of Central Park as Bob’s Burgers 2, and not just because of a preponderance of weak chins.
This show is about the Tillermans, a family of four who lives in the titular Manhattan park (yes, in it, specifically in Belvedere Castle which, in our own universe, traditionally houses the park’s manager). And much like the Belchers, they are an idiosyncratic bunch of likable people who, different from a lot of other TV families, genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company, and they support one another in big and small ways.
In particular, son Cole Tillerman (voiced by Tituss Burgess), with his fervent love of animals and unashamed confidence in his own weirdness, feels like a Gene Belcher clone. But that’s perfectly fine. Gene Belcher is a gift, and there’s always more room for sweet, genuine preteen boys on television.
And then there’s the family patriarch and park manager Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.) A lot like Bob Belcher, Owen has a profound passion for his ostensibly mundane job, a passion that no one else truly understands. Where Bob loves finding fresh ingredients and coming up with endearingly lame burger of the day puns, Owen loves watching the park’s flowers bloom every year and orchestrating the delicate dance that is its garbage collection. Granted, overseeing something as massive and highly trafficked as Central Park is probably no small feat, but with his high socks and quiet suffering, Owen has that same lame dadness that’s as unmistakable as it is admirable.
Am I comparing Central Park too much to Bob’s Burgers? Maybe. But it’s so hard not to. Hell, even H. John Benjamin, who voices Bob Belcher, shows up in Central Park for a guest appearance that, with his voice, would be impossible to miss. And to be perfectly honest, it’s difficult not to see the Tillermans as toned down, more earnest versions of the Belchers. But it’s still early days. The Belchers have had the better part of a decade to win our hearts. The Tillermans have had all of four episodes.
Actually, Central Park excels when it goes above and beyond certain elements of its predecessor. Bob’s Burgers is no stranger to very satisfying original songs, (I can’t be the only one who sometimes listens to Gene’s amazing “Electric Love” while I work). And Central Park embraces that all the way as a fully-fledged musical featuring roughly four new songs in each episode. At such a breakneck rate, some of those songs are going to be forgettable. It’s inevitable. But by god, I’ve caught myself walking around singing the first episode bop “Own It” under my breath.
The show also sets itself apart with what appears to be a budding season-long arc based around, of all things, real estate intrigue, a plot that’s been a source of drama several times on Bob’s Burgers. But this arc feels more involved, an intricate web of secrets and payoffs spearheaded by an elderly, dog-toting mogul and her fusty, embittered housekeeper (played respectively by Stanley Tucci and Daveed Diggs in roles I never knew I needed them in).
The one area the show breaks away the most is, oddly enough, the one that works the least. And that’s the addition of a narrator, a busker named Birdie (voiced by co-creator Josh Gad) who speaks both to the audience and the other characters, haplessly and self-importantly attempting to steer the events. It’s an interesting concept, and one that works well to drive home the show’s elevation of the mundane — Birdie desperately loves Central Park and is unrepentantly fascinated by its inner workings and eager to shoehorn himself into the drama, no matter how small it may be — but unfortunately, he’s also a bit annoying.
And the trouble with having a narrator who’s annoying, even to comedic ends, is that, well, you wind up spending a decent amount of your viewing time with an annoying character. Maybe Birdie will mellow out as the season progresses. Probably, he’ll prove himself invaluable to saving the park. Only time will tell. But for now, he’s a small hiccup in an otherwise overly pleasant and decidedly charming show.
Central Park may feel like another, sing-song-ier iteration of Bob’s Burgers, but that’s in no way a bad thing. I plan on continuing to watch Central Park for as long as it keeps delivering. I have a hard time imagining I’ll love the Tilllermans as much as I love the Belchers, but with 13 episodes slated to debut throughout the summer, they have enough time to give it a solid shot and give my heart a run for its money.
The first couple of episodes of Central Park are currently viewable on Apple TV+.