The animated comedy is back with better songs

Central Park season 3

Central Park season 3
Image: Apple TV+

Musical TV shows can be tricky. Good first seasons can quickly give way to stale second and third ones, stretching a gimmick past the point of being entertaining. The team behind Central Park, thankfully, seems to be doing just the opposite.

When the series began in 2020, it often felt like a collection of promising ideas that didn’t quite gel. The songs too often came across as stunts, rather than as storytelling devices that commented on a character’s state of mind or moved the action along. And the characters were often compared, negatively, to those in co-creator Loren Bouchard’s other beloved animated family centric comedy, Bob Burgers. While season two improved these issues, season three finds the Tillerman-Hunters & Co. in their best form yet.

Let’s start with the music, because it’s the most immediately impressive element of Central Park’s newest outing. The original songs, with many of the writers from seasons past, are tighter, livelier, and they just plain sound good. While the majority of the tunes fall into a typical musical-theater, sing-songy, jazzy style, season three also sees our animated New Yorkers delving into genres like country and K-Pop. While past musical efforts from Central Park often felt slapdash and nearly improvised, this season’s songs are full of harmonies, layered melodies, and counterpoints anchored by vocal performances from Broadway vets like Daveed Diggs, Titus Burgess, and Leslie Odom Jr.

Thanks in no small part to those improved songs, the other characters feel more well-rounded and more lived-in. Kristen Bell is also back in a regular capacity as Paige’s sister Abby who, at the spry age of 34, moves from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to the Big Apple, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to finally chase her dream of becoming an actor. Aside from the obvious reason (that is, Bell is actually the same race as her character this time), the role of the naively optimistic foil to Kathryn Hahn’s street-smart, now-successful writer is a much better fit for Bell. Beyond that, the neuroses of Paige and her park manager husband Owen (Odom) are moored to reality, giving the actors opportunities to nail emotional moments. Kids Molly (Emmy Raver-Lampman) and Cole (Burgess) deal with some of their most serious issues yet this time around—but they’re still handled with a sense of humor and always come across as earned by the storytelling.

Central Park — Season 3 Official Trailer | Apple TV+

The side characters, too, continue to benefit from the less plot-driven approach that began last season. Stanley Tucci’s Bitsy Brandenham and Digg’s long-suffering maid Helen have always been highlights mixing with the fam, but this season sets them almost entirely on their own adventures. Yes, they’re still here and still scheming, but most of their plans follow the cartoon tradition of hatching and resolving within some 24 minutes, which lends itself to a more colorful version of animated NYC.

Even Josh Gad’s busker-narrator Birdie, a bone of contention in early episodes of Central Park, is better used. Though only slightly less annoying, his inclusion at least makes sense this time around (if you’re going to include a narrator in a musical, they should probably sing almost exclusively), and he finally goes beyond telling us stuff we’re going to find out anyway.

As The A.V. Club noted in its review of Central Park’s second season, the show improved when it stopped focusing primarily on Bitsy’s manic obsession with developing Central Park and shifted its attention to crafting characters and their backstories. Fortunately, season three continues this upward trajectory with more standalone episodes. Central Park is already an animated musical comedy held together by a wildly impressive cast. Frankly, it doesn’t need—and can hardly sustain—any further gimmicks. The series has all the pieces, and in season three it’s better than ever at putting them together.

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