If you had told me that a talking animal show on broadcast would be one of my favorite shows of 2017, I would have shown you the door. But by golly ABC has done it. Downward Dog, created by Samm Hodges and Michael Killen (based on their web series), tells the parallel stories of a Pittsburgh professional, Nan (the wonderful Allison Tolman) and her dog Martin (played by the outstanding Ned — yes, this dog is good enough for me to credit him specifically). Martin narrates the series and gets a great deal of camera time both as Nan’s pet and as our confidant.
But Martin is no ordinary dog; he’s essentially an existential hipster, one who is deeply introspective and thoughtful. Though he laments Nan leaving him alone in the house while she goes “to drive around all day” (not understanding the concept of a job), he admits that he has plenty to do with “managing staffing changes,” like when different mailmen show up. Whether you are a dog lover or not, there’s really no getting away from Martin’s understated charisma as he explains his world.
Nan works at a corporate branch of an Urban Outfitters-like store called Clark + Bow, providing the human side of the story where she labors tirelessly to counteract the douche-bro decisions of her boss, Kevin (Barry Rothbart). One of her earliest triumphs is creating a marketing campaign that focuses on a lesson she learned from Martin — that everyone should see themselves the way their dog does (that is to say, with love). A few episodes later, Kevin says he completely agrees, which is why he wants to to install skinny mirrors into all of their stores to really make people think they are beautiful!
Tolman is fantastically likable as Nan, who is not just smart and capable, but also incredibly real. It’s an aesthetic that permeates Downward Dog and its desire to show not only the humor of daily life but also how we create our own worlds of experience. Martin laments about his own looks at one point, saying “I know I’m not food-bag good looking anymore, I think my eyes have gotten a little droopy. I know I’m not the same dog she first met.” That thinking eventually leads him to get caught up in an “emotional affair” with Kevin, and the language he uses is so truthful and sincere. The humor is not really that he’s saying this as a dog, but in the more general universality of these kinds of experiences.
Downward Dog is a smart show (and Martin is a smart dog — “Sometimes I think that dog culture is just a breeding ground of anti-intellectualism,” he opines). It’s also delightful. Pittsburgh has never looked more lovely, with its parks, rivers, historic neighbors and beautiful bridges providing a lush setting. Nan’s relationship with her on-again-off-again boyfriend Jason (Lucas Neff) is charmingly complicated, but even here the dialogue is quietly funny (“I’m speaking slowly out of fear, not condescension,” Jason says when confronting Nan about a “Voldemort-like” plan she’s hatching at work with her hilarious friend Jenn, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste). But when Tolman laughs it feels warm and genuine, and is a kind of perfect juxtaposition to Martin’s doleful expressions (the show did an amazing job of finding a dog who can just sit and stare and make you really wonder what he’s thinking).
Though the show chooses the animate Martin’s mouth in “confessional” moments, we never see him speak outside of that. He doesn’t chat with other dogs (and they mercifully do not chat either), and though there’s an “evil” cat who Martin is terrified of, she who only speaks to him in dreams/nightmares. So, yes, despite there being about a talking dog, Downward Dog is incredibly restrained and grounded in how it portrays Martin’s story.
I could go on and on quoting Martin and his deadpan but beautifully hyperbolic thought process (“When you’re as flawed as me, choosing to love yourself may be one of the greatest acts of bravery in the history of the world”), because everything he says is a gem. But what is really fascinating is how the show (which is gorgeously filmed and actually premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival) builds its humor off of such surprisingly affecting and truthful in its emotional moments for both Nan and Martin. It’s never going for the laugh so much as the inherent humor of subtle truths, which may not sound like much, but it is. Downward Dog is the most stylish half-hour on broadcast that I may have ever seen, but it has found a way to marry together a broad and quirky concept with a warm, intelligent comedy. There is nothing not to love about this series.
Rating:★★★★★ – A Damn Fine Dog
Downward Dog premieres on Wednesday May 17 at 9:30 on ABC, then moves to a Tuesday 8pm time slot for the rest of the summer.