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One Good Thing: The dreaming, scheming dog lovers of “Central Park”

Sometimes we get what we want, if there’s space to share.

A cartoon of a boy embracing a small dog in a park. An annoyed older woman holds the leash.
Cole and not-his-dog, reunited.
Screenshot: Central Park

Cole wants a dog, and he can’t get one. On another sitcom, that would just be a one-off episode. On Central Park — the animated musical comedy on Apple TV+ — it’s half the show.

If, like me, you failed to secure a pandemic furry friend and are looking for some consolation in this, the cruelest month, here’s a tale (only a few spoilers!) to pass the time until we can all go to a real park together.

Cole lives with his park ranger family among the ferns, falcons, and flies (there’s a garbage crisis episode) of Central Park, but wants a pet of his own. The object of his affection, Shampagne, is trapped up “like a way better Rapunzel” by Bitsy, a tycoon whose hotel overlooks the park and whose only love in the world is the Shih Tzu she bathes in perfume.

But Shampagne has escaped, and Bitsy (played by a perfectly grumbly Stanley Tucci) is left uncharacteristically bereft. “Your nonallergenic fur, your weirdly hard-to-treat worms. It’s like I’ve lost 1,000 friends,” she laments.

Lest we get too sympathetic, Bitsy turns this into an opportunity to sow total chaos. She calls a press conference and offers “50,000 — no, 60,000! — no, 55,000” dollars to anyone who finds Shampagne. A mob descends on the park. Statues are defaced with peanut butter.

Shampagne is not lost. He has found Cole (Tituss Burgess, channeling our collective childhood hopes and anxieties). Playing fetch with a discarded flip-flop, Cole monologues to Shampagne, “In this crazy, crazy mixed-up world, I found you. And no one’s going to separate us. You hear me? Okay, now you say something. … I understand completely.”

But separate they must. Cole’s dad, Owen, quickly finds them in hiding, and sings a duet with his son in annoyance (Owen) and mourning (Cole). “My heart is broken now that we’ve returned that pup / My hopes have dropped like poop that cannot be picked up,” Cole sings.

Why do I find this so affecting? I did not lack for dogs growing up. Though Central Park uses a light touch with its dog heartbreak, this little B plot-turned-A plot got me dreaming of my own pup. It feels ripe for a moment when a lot of grown adults want dogs — or really, anyone to share their lives with.

The flip side of this tragic, half-eaten flip-flop? Bitsy has won, and like any good one-percenter, she is convinced she’s the victim. Central Park … must … go! “I’ll put a condo there and a condo there and a TGI Fridays there.” It’s “central to my plot,” you see.

This is not really an eat-the-rich satire, though to be honest, I would much rather watch Bitsy and her long-suffering assistant, Helen (Daveed Diggs), affectionately snipe at each other than their big-budget TV brethren.

Cole and Shampagne do not easily forget their burgeoning love, despite our villains’ best efforts. Helen dreams of killing off Shampagne to ... somehow ... get Bitsy’s inheritance, but she eventually recognizes a chance for a quietly radical arrangement: Cole will walk the dog every so often, for nothing but the thrill of it. Free labor, perhaps, but Helen isn’t really working in her own interest: Maybe, just maybe, love is something to be shared, rather than hoarded.

That’s all just the opening act in Central Park. Writer-director Loren Bouchard’s faux-improvisational charms are not for everyone, but I’ve long been a fan.

When I heard about the show, however, my first thought was, “What a waste!” The world does not need another show about Manhattan, right? And the setup repeats many beats of Bouchard’s hit Bob’s Burgers — a weird but wholesome family sitcom that revolves around a dad’s insistence that the family needs to literally live in the place he works. It’s also fully a musical, which may be a dealbreaker for some.

But out of a park, Bouchard has built a universe. It’s a rare thing in TV. Sitcoms in the US are almost always about the three spheres of American life: work, school, and home.

Now the humble park has at least two great TV series to its name. And Central Park has more than the obvious in common with its counterpart, Parks and Recreation. They both feature several oddball romances that are surprisingly moving for a sitcom, but their true love is the public space.

Maybe America is finally ready to view public space as relatable, too. Where the filthy rich and everyone else can take a dog for a stroll, that’s a place — as the song goes — central in my heart.

Central Park’s first two seasons are streaming on Apple TV+. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.