On Friday, Apple TV will debut the streaming platform’s first animated series: Central Park. Created by Bob’s Burgers‘ Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith along with Josh Gad, the show is a musical celebration of one of the world’s most unique and famous public spaces. It follows the adventures of park manager Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom Jr.), who lives on the grounds with his journalist wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn) and their two children Molly (Kristen Bell) and Cole (Titus Burgess).
The show is a winner, combining the wry, self-aware humor Bouchard brought to Bob’s Burgers with Gad’s gift for eminently hummable tunes and wraps the whole thing in a warm, wholesome spirit that never lets its many winks at the camera ruin its earnestness. Stanley Tucci is a riot as our antagonist, the wealthy, conniving business mogul Bitsy Brandenham and Gad himself regularly steals the show as a sort of audience surrogate/wandering minstrel type.
RELEVANT was able to join a conversation with Gad and Bell about creating a show that actually works for a whole family and celebrates New York City’s underdogs.
On creating a show the whole family can enjoy without pandering to either the kids or the adults.
Josh Gad: I wanted a show that I could celebrate with my kids. Something akin to Bob’s Burgers, which my co-creator Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith both also had a hand in creating. I wanted it to be a show that celebrated life, that celebrated a passion, that celebrated perseverance in the face of adversity. A show that celebrates all those things that make us so human and we didn’t feel the need to rely on crass humor or to — there’s the occasional poop joke, I’m not going to lie — but we felt like we wanted something that really could be the essence of co-viewing at a time when there are fairly limited options. Where you love something but maybe your kids don’t, or your kids love something that maybe you don’t. We wanted something for everyone to love. And I hope we accomplish that. I can tell you in my household there has definitely been a sense of excitement for the past two years as my kids have been watching these episodes. Kristen, what about you?
Kristen Bell: I signed onto this project knowing nothing about it. I signed on because Josh said, “Hey, do you want to do a cartoon with me?” I said, ‘Yes.” He said, “OK, bye.” And then later I get told what the plot is …Listen, I have a five and a seven-year-old and we love hanging out, but we are not often agreeing on TV. And there’s a lot of great shows that they love. But if I watch another Paw Patrol, I will pull my hair out. It’s not because I think it’s a bad show. It’s a wonderful show. I just can’t. I’ve seen Ryder do it all, right? I know…Chase is on the case. I get it. I need something a little more complicated to keep my interest.
And it is hard to find things cause even going back and watching the ’80s movies, like Back to the Future, things that we think would be super appropriate. Even if they’re appropriate, there might be something in there that spoke to my child, or… It is harder than you think to create a show that is true co-viewing. I trust Josh’s comedic and show-running integrity implicitly. I sat down and watched this with my kids. I was incredibly engaged. My kids have been singing the songs. They love it. There’s nothing I’m nervous about. It is the essence of co-viewing and it makes me so happy that at a time when a lot of us are still at home, we are able to have this joyful snuggle party in the evenings.
On making a show that celebrates underdogs.
Kristen Bell: One reason I love playing Molly is because a lot of people write adolescents on television and cartoon or live action. And you can fall into a lot of cliches. You can fall into a lot of places where they’re just rebellious or they hate their parents or all these things that aren’t necessarily realistic for… They’re dramatic, but they’re not realistic. And Molly is an awkward adolescent, as they all are because they’re figuring out the world, but they have somehow in Central Park shown us this big, beautiful brain that she has. And this lightning world inside her head that she can only draw about. But in that world, she has confidence and power. And I’m very grateful to play her and I’ll let Josh speak to the rest.
Josh Gad: I think so many people right now feel like an underdog. I don’t know that there’s anything that celebrates the underdog as much as we’ve tried to with this show. And it’s not just Molly, it’s Owen, it’s Paige, it’s Cole, it’s even Birdie. It’s everybody, except for Bitsy who, literally and metaphorically, looks down on the world. And so we love that. We loved leaning into that because, again, I think this family shows you how important the power of perseverance is, and also being a family unit. And the thing that I love about the show is the love that the show gives me back, the love that this family has for each other. I find it so inspirational at a time when we could all use a little light in our lives.
On the emotional attachment to Central Park.
Josh Gad: I can recall a very vivid memory of being there in the spring of ’99. I was going into my final semester in high school and I had applied to Carnegie Mellon Drama where I would actually meet my co-star, Leslie Odom Jr. who was my classmate. And I left my audition in New York City. And I put everything on that audition. That was going to be my lifeline. If I got into the school, I was set and if I didn’t, I was ruined. I left the audition and my mom said, “What do you want to do?” And I said to her, “I’d love to take a stroll through Central Park.” And we walked into the park and I kid you not, it started sprinkling snow. As I left the border of this concrete jungle and entered the border of this magical natural wonderland, not from wonderland. And it really made me feel like everything was going to be OK.
The thing that I’m obsessed with about Central Park is it’s the great equalizer. You can be the richest person in the world or the poorest person in the world. But when you’re in that park, you’re on an equal playing field. And the park shouldn’t exist. It should not exist. And yet here it is in the midst of steel and you’re taken to this place where anything is possible. That to me felt like the magic that we wanted to bring to this series.
Kristen Bell: I went to NYU, so I went to school in the city. I remember growing up in Detroit and in Michigan where there’s a ton of land and backyards that are just overgrown and you can run around. And I was missing that a little bit in the concrete jungle. Yet, I was incredibly thrilled to be 18 years old and studying musical theater. And there’s something very, very special about this paradox that is Central Park and that it shouldn’t exist there, and it is an equalizer, but you’re able to fulfill sort of both parts of your personality, or at least I was where I was ready to be a working woman and live in an apartment in a walk-up on floor four. And yet I sort of yearned for a little bit more Michigan, and then I could go to the park and that could happen.
To me, it’s a celebration of, which our show is as well, this celebration of diversity. There’s two different lands right next to each other co-existing. And I dare you to find a person in New York City who can’t make an argument that you need them both.