Around the time that Garth Stein’s novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” became a best-seller, dog owners became extremely annoying. Almost overnight, these odorous little anarchists morphed into noble, fuzzy philosophers, four-legged Zen masters whose purpose is to remind humans to live in the moment. This came about along with “Marley & Me,” creating a critical mass of canine worshiper weirdness that persists to this day in the form of dog bars, puppy meet-ups, canine day care and those maudlin “Who Rescued Who?” bumper stickers.
And now the Church of Dog even has a comedy that proselytizes its way of life in ABC’s “Downward Dog,” which premieres Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. and is centered upon a charismatic mutt named Martin (voiced by series co-creator Samm Hodges).
[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/allisontolmanvid.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/allisontolmanPIC.png"][/jwplayer]
Staring at the camera with sensitive adorable moon eyes, Martin shares his loneliness and insecurities with the viewer in rambling deadpan monologues. Martin is a very feelings-forward being, he explains, which is why he resents being cooped up in the house while, as he assumes, his human Nan (Allison Tolman) drives around all day without him. In essence, Martin is a spaced-out hipster enduring a quarter-life crisis, who, like, can’t quite understand why his girlfriend doesn’t appreciate all the contributions he makes to their relationship — such as sleeping a lot and managing the mail carrier.
What Martin doesn’t know is that Nan spends long hours at the office working as a team leader designing campaigns for Clark + Bow, a sort of lifestyle boutique chain that resembles Anthropologie. Her idiotic bro of a boss Kevin (Barry Rothbart) denigrates all her ideas and generally makes her workday hell. Nan’s ex-boyfriend Jason (Lucas Neff) isn’t giving her enough space to get over him. In fact, her relationships with Martin and her best friend Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) are the healthiest ones in her life.
So this is a prime-time comedy starring a dog that speaks to the audience — as in, animation makes Martin’s mouth move. That alone is enough to lead a viewer to dismiss “Downward Dog” as summertime burn-off material.
One unspoken truth about summer scripted series, though, is some of them are actually smart and enjoyable. They just don’t fit anywhere on a broadcast network’s schedule during the regular season, so they are introduced during periods of low expectations and lower scripted inventory. This also tends to doom many such shows.
But despite what “Downward Dog” looks like, to say nothing of its role in the Pooch Adulation Industrial Complex, it’s a shockingly witty and enjoyable slant on the television romantic comedy. Only here, the romantic lead and hero is a dog for whom there are no half measures. Within the space of moments Martin announces that he's one of the smartest dogs who ever existed, only to sink into a funk when he realizes that other better trained dogs may be more intelligent than he is. As much as he enjoys regularly scheduled togetherness events with his owner, such as “cry into the wine time,” he also resents when she deviates from his schedule. Just as telling is his casual admission that he respects Nan’s ex as a peer.
“Downward Dog” began as a web series co-created by Michael Killen, one of the people responsible for making the Taco Bell chihuahua and the Meow Mix cats appear to speak. In the shorts, only the dog spoke; creating an entire series based on the concept required creating a job and a plot for his human companions.
Knowing that Killen and Hodges come from the world of television advertising explains the blandness of Nan’s job and her commercially dull life, which makes Tolman’s work shine all the brighter here. Saddled with an unexceptional narrative, the actress gives us a character worth pulling for nevertheless. Besides, the unremarkable nature of Nan’s existence bolsters the comedic focus on Martin’s point of view and makes the humor feel down-to-earth and rooted in a sense of realism.
Also, wouldn't most sitcoms be improved by replacing one character with a dog like Martin? (Candidates include tagging an alert Doberman to stand in for Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory," or deciding that Phil Dunphy on "Modern Family" will be forthwith played by a Bernese mountain dog.)
Better still, “Downward Dog” doesn’t attempt to make Martin any more than what he is — a mutt whose personality is much larger than his intelligence, a creature who is equally driven by instinct and ego and who fears Pepper, the neighborhood cat (voiced by Maria Bamford). The producers wisely do not grant Martin the ability to converse with Pepper or other dogs, preventing the comedy from devolving into simplistic cutesiness.
This also keeps Martin’s sole focus on figuring out the inner workings of Martin. Nan, Lucas and Jenn may be struggling to navigate the cold world of office politics and corporate hegemony, but that’s less important to an episode’s action than Martin's piecing together a logical excuse for ripping apart Nan’s things or having an emotional affair. “I am a creature of love,” he declares to the audience in defense of one destructive episode. “And it’s because of that love that I had to so aggressively dominate her.”
While “Downward Dog” can be emotionally manipulative in the way that any show starring an animal might be, its highest success is as a comedy of varying perspectives. The half-hour show’s protagonist thinks and behaves differently than anyone around him because he is of an entirely different species. Issues of importance to Martin have as much weight as Nan’s struggles.
Placing them in the forefront then is an invitation to see the daily annoyance that Nan has to endure as secondary to life’s weightier questions concerning control, compromise and self-respect. With a light touch and glowing sincerity, the writers posit that everyone is someone's dog, and somehow we must find a way to navigate that truth either with or without a joyfully loyal canine companion.