NBC’s ‘Animal Practice’ is monkey business as usual

From left: Justin Kirk, Bobby Lee, Tyler Labine, and Crystal the monkey star in NBC’s new sitcom “Animal Practice.”
From left: Justin Kirk, Bobby Lee, Tyler Labine, and Crystal the monkey star in NBC’s new sitcom “Animal Practice.”

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I’m supposed to dislike this sitcom, per the rulebook of the TV Critics’ Loyal Order of Water Buffalos, which clearly states that a review of any show prominently featuring a monkey must include the words “dumb,” “dumber,” and “driven bananas.” I’m also required to rhyme “monkey” with “clunky” and/or “junky.”

Well this time, I’m happy to abide. NBC’s “Animal Practice” promises to be junky monkey business, and clunky, too, based on the pilot that has a post-Olympics preview on Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on Channel 7. And that’s not because of the monkey. The monkey, named Dr. Rizzo and played by Crystal from “We Bought a Zoo” and “The Hangover Part II,” is pretty darn delightful, especially when she’s dressed up in human uniforms. She scrubs in for surgery! So cute! And so are the many other animals — dogs, cats, gerbils — who appear in the sitcom, which is set at a veterinary hospital.

But the humans on “Animal Practice” have a lot less to offer. Veterinarian George Coleman (Justin Kirk) believes that animals are better creatures than people, and I can’t argue with him. But the animals can’t make a sitcom work unless they’re surrounded by good human writing and human originality, both of which are in short supply here. As “Animal Practice” develops, after it returns for its regular Wednesday run on Sept. 26, maybe it will become less shrilly madcap and more character-based. It’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened in the world of NBC’s sitcoms, where the likes of “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock” evolved so nicely after their first episodes.

Kirk’s George is a stereotypical womanizer who hits on a vulnerable cat owner in the first minutes of the show: “My name’s Dr. George Coleman, and I get off at 6.” Kirk is a good comedic actor, and he has provided bright spots on “Weeds” (not to mention dramatic high points in HBO’s “Angels in America”). But he’s saddled with a very predictable character here, as well as clunker lines such as this one, about heart: “If I’m going to romanticize an organ, it’s certainly not going to be that one.” Even the most expert sitcom punch line batter is probably going to strike out with that kind of dumb and dumber material.

Kirk is also saddled with a romantic plot that’s exhausting from the get-go. George’s ex-girlfriend, Dorothy (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), is the new director of the hospital, and so the two of them are going to rehash old issues and flirt until we are all driven bananas. Will they or won’t they? Groan. Kirk and Garcia Swisher give it their best, but they fall prey to the inevitable banalities of the story line. I can already see George and Dorothy tauntingly dragging their dates in front of each other in upcoming episodes, to make the other jealous.

The supporting cast is also too familiar too soon. I imagine each of them will be making almost the same one-liners in the 10th episode that they make in the first. Tyler Labine is essentially the character he has played on a number of short-lived series, including “Reaper,” “Sons of Tucson,” “Mad Love,” and “Invasion.” He’s a likable, playful performer, but here he’s just rehashing his boyish loser-in-love persona with no extra twists or layers. Both Bobby Lee as a wimpy vet and Betsy Sodaro as a creepy assistant are limited, one-joke creations. And Kym Whitley is the cliched “oh-no-you-didn’t” killjoy nurse.

Compare the “Animal Practice” ensemble to that of “Scrubs,” which was also set in a medical environment, and you can see just how lackluster they are. Apparently, NBC executives think this kind of hackneyed show is going to help them out of the ratings basement. In the name of the Grand Poobah, I hope they’re wrong.