May 18, 2017

Channel Surfing: Downward Dog - "Pilot"

Scene from Downward Dog
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
If the internet is to be believed, everyone loves cute animal videos. It only makes since then that ABC would hop on the wagon with their own talking dog show Downward Dog. Before you go much further, just know that it isn't a talking dog show in the cornball way that its title suggests. It's also not as demented as FX's predecessor Wilfred. What it is instead is a strangely poignant series about depression. Based on the web series of the same name, the story follows Martin the dog (Samm Hodges) as he chronicles his life with owner Nan (Fargo's Allison Tolman). As Nan tries to forward her career, she spends more time away from Martin, who worries that she upset Nan to the point of making her drive around alone in her car. At least, that's what he thinks. He also hates the neighborhood cat (Maria Bamford), who he considers to be an emotional terrorist.
Bringing Downward Dog to a serialized format does seem like a bit of a challenge. The original videos were minute long and not much different from the Dear Kitten ads that Friskies released. It's a clever play on human emotions as projected onto animals. The only difference is that the dog is somewhat depressed and eager for attention. When he doesn't get it, he rebels. He tries to find answers within his everyday life, never knowing what Nan's life outside of the household actually is. Not unless he's there, anyways. Martin has a rich and full imagination that is undermined for his desperation for attention. In that way, he becomes human to the audience. He makes us understand the struggle of pets through a somewhat comical but largely somber and indie prism. The show avoids being twee about its subject by being honest, but inevitably is too niche to feel like the next big hit for ABC.
ABC is after all a network that thrives on optimistic tropes. Their previous show exploring psychological connections to childhood things (Imaginary Mary) couldn't help but be made in the manic mold of something like The Goldbergs. Its stories were also far more conventional and blatant. From the first episode of Downward Dog, it cannot help but feel revolutionary by comparison. This is a show that could be described as manic depressive, or appealing to an audience who doesn't watch upbeat comedies. It's a show that's concerned about exploring the psyche of a dog in a way that isn't cute. It's clever in how it portrays this, but it doesn't serve as the feel good hit of the summer. It is more of a drama about a failing relationship being bonded back together. It's fascinating for a sitcom, but it's not really good at being a sitcom.
It helps that Hodges' work as Martin has a low key charm to it. His morose cadence allows mundane observations to take on deeper insight. This is especially true as his journey into the backyard suddenly becomes a struggle for acceptance. There's constant wonder of what he did wrong. He wants to go for walks and feel like Nan isn't ignoring him. He even considers any personal time to be therapy. The one thing that the TV series improves on over the web series - almost by necessity - is giving Nan more of a purpose. While it takes away from the idea that this series is all seeing from the dog's perspective, it does give a balance to the emotional weight. Nan's struggles are more typical workplace behavior that involves getting ahead. Even then, the subversion of Martin's observations are an excellent addition to the sitcom model. This may end up being more emotional than funny - depending on what is retooled - but at least it will be one of the most interesting things on TV this summer.
Downward Dog is a breath of fresh air for audiences who were too obsessed with conventional and happy programming. It's still unclear on whether the show will be exceptional, but at least it will be unique. It's likely to appeal to dog owners who think about what their dogs want. This is mostly truer for owners who feel like they accidentally neglect their pets at the expense of work and life. It's the sad inner core of the series that may make it unpleasant for mainstream audiences, but at least it will stand out in a season packed with novelty shows. It's bold for ABC to even consider a show like this. It's exciting to think that it'll last. The reality lies somewhere in the middle. One can only hope that this dog knows more than one trick.

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