'Downward Dog': TV Review

ABC/Bob D’Amico
"Mutt-blecore" may become a popular new genre.
5/17/2017

Allison Tolman and a sad-eyed dog shine in a laconic relationship show that's less funny than ABC is trying to make it look.

I like to imagine that FX's Wilfred caused great tumult among the dog lobby. I'm referring to the advocacy lobby of dogs, not just the lobby on behalf of dogs and certainly not to the lobby at the Hotel for Dogs, which is quite the pickup scene.

There's no way that dogs liked the way they were presented on Wilfred, all destructive id and baser instincts. Plus, the main character was totally being played in dog-face, which I hear is pretty offensive if you know its history. I suspect it also caused great consternation that Elijah Wood's character was able to talk to Wilfred and understand him, basically rubbing dogs' noses in the frequency with which, in the real world, a request for food is greeted with a tossed tennis ball or a displeased rejection of a laser pointer is greeted with more laser pointer.

Reactions to ABC's new comedy Downward Dog are likely to be much more positive within the canine community. Creators Samm Hodges and Michael Killen have given their furry main character a rich interior life and a philosophical worldview sure to butter up any dogs in the audience and, perhaps more importantly when it comes to DVR setting and Nielsen measurement, sure to flatter their cohorts with opposable thumbs for their discerning pet selection. And if Downward Dog actually — more often than not and perhaps more often than it intends — makes its main character look like a bit of an asshole, well, dogs are probably too dumb to recognize that nuance of depiction.

Oh, chill out, dogs. I'm kidding.

Set and filmed in Pittsburgh, Ned the Dog plays Martin (voiced by Hodges), laconic chum to Nan (Allison Tolman). When he isn't rationing out 14 hours a day for sleep, Martin spends most of his time staring out the window, plotting revenge against the sociopathic cat next door and overanalyzing every aspect of his relationship with Nan, a power struggle in which every time he thinks he has her properly trained, she goes and messes things up, forcing Martin to introduce new forms of discipline. Martin is self-obsessed, a little chauvinistic, and occasionally withholding and cruel, but I think he means well.

For her part, Nan is off all day at her marketing job, having her great ideas maligned by a boss (Barry Rothbart) who doesn't respect her, then coming home to a slacker ex-boyfriend (Lucas Neff's Jason), who is proving to be even less trainable than Martin.

At least Nan and Martin have each other, and that's sure to make all the dogs and people watching Downward Dog feel good about themselves.

To credit a network prone to giving its comedies bad titles and questionable promotional campaigns, ABC has done good work selling Downward Dog as a quippy sitcom about a quippy pooch prone to one-liners. That is not what Downward Dog is. It's much more a bittersweet indie movie about mismatched partners trying and usually failing to communicate in the modern world, a genre that usually submits dozens of film festival entries, hence Downward Dog getting a Sundance berth last January. Yes, there's comedy in disconnection, but there's at least as much loneliness and misunderstanding. Dare I call it, "Mutt-blecore"? Yes. I do.

In a tribute to the power of selective editing, I've found myself laughing more at 30-second ads for Downward Dog than at the entirety of the four episodes made available to critics. Despite having the creators writing or directing three of the first four episodes, the sort of continuity that ideally breeds consistency, the quality of the early installments varies wildly.

When Downward Dog tries to be a show as funny as the ABC ads try to make it look, it's not very good at all. Nan's workplace hijinks are marred by Rothbart playing a grating sitcom bad boss in a show going for as much naturalism as you can possibly muster from a premise involving a talking dog. The episode that tries to back into humanizing the boss was my least favorite of the four I've seen, and I'm still waiting for the show to make Nan's perfunctory human best friend (Kirby Howell-Baptiste's Jenn) feel like she serves either a comic or narrative purpose.

When Downward Dog is about the love triangle or unconventional ménage à trois between Martin, Nan and Jason, that's a show that I mostly enjoyed.

Tolman, so fantastic on the first season of Fargo and so insufficiently used by Hollywood since, serves a comparable purpose here as on the FX anthology. Basically, she is spectacular at making you believe that no matter what's happening around her, be it a sad-eyed pet opining about an automatic doggie door or Billy Bob Thornton as a force-of-nature assassin, it's grounded in the real world. She's an empathetic center to the story even in the shtick workplace side of the show, and she has great chemistry with both Ned and Neff.

Neff, moving from acting with babies on Raising Hope to acting with a dog here, pulls off the smooth character transition Rothbart can't. In the first episode, Jason comes across as less likable and more predictable slacker than one would want to root for, but by the end of the fourth episode, I could see what Nan liked about him. Part of that is a small problem, though, because Jason and Martin sound a lot alike at times, so much so that if it turned out by the 10th episode that one or the other was a figment of Nan's imagination, I wouldn't be shocked. It's a surplus of deadpan resignation that Tolman helpfully breaks up.

Downward Dog has a good sense of the overlapping between pet ownership and relationships and never lets you forget the prism through which the show and Martin are looking at things. Sometimes it achieves deadpan zen koans like "I think the gradual lowering of expectations is possibly the highest form of love," and sometimes Martin says things like "I did a very, very bad thing; I don't think that necessarily means that I'm a bad dog" that just make me suspect he's been watching Bloodline. And I wish that just once or twice, Hodges and Killen would trust audiences to make those overlaps ourselves and not treat us like we're dogs.

As Martin puts it, "A lot of dogs are just really, really like ... they're just stupid."

Maybe the dog lobby won't be so happy after all, but a subset of viewers predisposed to animal affections and tolerant of inconsistent quality probably will be.

Cast: Allison Tolman, Lucas Neff, Barry Rothbart, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Samm Hodges
Creators: Samm Hodges, Michael Killen
Showrunners: Kat Likkel, John Hoberg
Premieres: Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, then airs Tuesdays, 8 p.m. (ABC)

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