9:00am PT by Craig Tomashoff
'Downward Dog': How a Talking Dog Comedy (That Isn't Animated) Got on the Air at ABC
Michael Killen knew the job was dangerous when he took it. You don’t just create a show featuring a talking dog and expect the Emmy nominations to start pouring in. Which is the reason he’s been doing a lot more explaining than he ordinarily would have to when it comes to discussing Downward Dog, the new ABC comedy he put together with his friend Samm Hodges.
“We’re programmed in our minds to be defensive because we’ve had to do it for this show so often,” he says with a laugh.
However, a funny thing happened to this comedy on the way to its network debut this week (Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.). People realized it has about as much in common with your typical talking animal project as your aunt’s schnauzer does with Family Guy's Brian Griffin. For instance, earlier this year, Downward Dog became the first major network comedy to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. And suddenly, Killen and Hodges could stop justifying their series.
"The premise sounds like such an awful idea, you really need people who might avoid it to just come into a room, watch and then judge it," explains Killen. "The notoriety of Sundance as a tastemaker, basically saying 'this is a show we feel has quality to it,' really helped. They showed the first four episodes together, so now I feel like saying to people, 'Watch the pilot but stick around through episode four and you’ll see how we grow.'"
The show, based on a web series created by Kellen and Hodges, stars Allison Tolman (Fargo) as a single woman struggling with her job and a nearly ex-boyfriend (Lucas Neff, Raising Hope). The one constant source of support in her life is her dog Ned, who frequently spills his internal thoughts about his life as well as hers to the camera as if he was in reality show confession booth. And while Killen admits that the show is "a little overprotective out of that gate, we start to find stronger places to go with the concept."
A lot of the credit for a talking-dog show that digs deeper goes to Ned, according to Hodges (who also provides the pooch's voice).
"In a lot of the ways, he's the millennial male, very emotionally sensitive," he says. "So we tried to lean into a little of that with our stories. He's trying to figure out what it means to be alive, like we all are."
Hodges is well aware how hard it is to teach some new tricks to an audience weaned on old animal shows, talking or otherwise. The critters are often "the butt of the joke," he admits, but he and Killen opted to take their dog "much more seriously. We're not going for moments with the biggest laugh. We're going for moments with the biggest emotions."
If any production team is going to understand how a dog thinks, it's Killen and Hodges. Killen comes from the world of commercials and, among other projects, worked on those Taco Bell ads featuring the famous chatty Chihuahua. The Pittsburgh resident wanted to develop a short film about a dog who "took life seriously and questioned whether life mattered or not." Fellow Pittsburgh director/visual effects artist Hodges gave him the exact pitch he was hoping for, and they put together a series of shorts using Killen's brother-in-law's dog Sadie and a local crew he knew from his commercial work.
As soon as he heard Hodges' droll delivery of the dog's dialogue, Killen knew "this was going to be something different." They ultimately shot seven mini-episodes, turning them into a web series that ultimately got the attention of Downward Dog producers Legendary Television and, eventually, ABC. A pilot was filmed in late 2015 and perhaps the biggest challenge came from finding the right dog for Dog. They were hoping for a rescue animal of no particular breed and after seeing the human-like intensity in Ned's eyes, gave him the job.
"He'd been in a shelter in Chicago for a year and a half, and somewhere down South before that," recalls Killen. "He was unadoptable … but our trainer worked with him a lot, and by the time we started shooting he was a real pro."
As for casting Tolman, Hodges says he'd wanted to work with her ever since his wife convinced him to watch season one of FX anthology Fargo. He loved how real she seemed, something that would be important if you're going to spend your days dealing with a talking dog. Adds Killen, "Allison is so grounded as an actress. And what comes out of that is that we're allowed to be less grounded with our storytelling. We can stretch boundaries. We've worked hard on our narrative and then letting the comedy come out of that."
ABC ordered Dog to series in May 2016 and now, a year later, viewers can finally see it. The long wait hasn't always been easy for the show's creators, but they are opting to see the delay as a good thing.
"We're coming at this from a naive place, thinking it's an advantage," says Killen. "We don't exactly have a ton of history putting shows on the air. There's a lot less fanfare for network programming this time of year, so that could be a strange positive. It's like watching movies in the summer. There are a lot of blockbusters that come out, but you find other movies that are great too. So that's our hope."