The new TV series Downward Dog takes on loneliness and fear and all the other gunk that gets caught in your spiritual gutters when you start feeling low. It can be warm, but only once its characters push their way through searing self-doubt to get to the other side.
Downward Dog is also a sitcom that stars a talking dog.
When I first heard that ABC was debuting a new comedy about a talking dog, I figured I knew what was coming. The dog would crack some jokes, drink out of the toilet, make a mess, generally be adorable, roll credits.
But Downward Dog is decidedly not that. While Martin does get up to plenty of typical dog shenanigans — in the first episode, he literally eats his owner’s homework — he’s way more concerned with observing and dissecting the emotional roller coaster that is his life with Nan (Fargo’s Allison Tolman), his harried owner who’s trying to make headway in her frustrating advertising job. Martin and Nan are two sides of the same coin, each working through their own neuroses and insecurities with determination, even as they acknowledge that they have no idea what the hell they’re doing.
I don’t know how Downward Dog found its way onto a broadcast TV network’s comedy slate, but after steamrolling through the four episodes made available to critics, I’m just thrilled it did.
Downward Dog’s unusual storytelling and aesthetic choices make it way more rewarding
First, let’s clear up something I bet you’ve already assumed: Martin isn’t a “talking dog” in the sense that he and Nan have lively debates over morning coffee. Instead, Downward Dog reveals his thoughts through a deadpan voiceover (read by series creator Samm Hodges) as he loafs around the house, takes walks, and bestows affection upon whatever human happens to step into his path (but especially Nan, his one true love).
The show — based on Hodges’s web series of the same name — also dips into mockumentary territory, frequently letting Martin stare into the camera as his voiceover delivers musings on life, love, Nan, and the right to be his own dog.
However, there’s more to Downward Dog than its title character (a fact Martin would probably disagree with, but in his defense, he’s an especially solid doggo, 12/10). The show is definitely concerned with Martin’s perspective on Nan’s attempts to make something fantastic of her life. Yet it also leaves room to let Nan enjoy just relaxing on her couch, petting her dog, having drinks with her work wife Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), or pouncing on her friend slash boyfriend (it’s complicated), Jason (Lucas Neff).
Sometimes Downward Dog inches its way toward the kind of broad wackiness you might expect from a show about a talking dog — though that wackiness usually has less to do with canine capers than with Nan’s jerk boss Kevin (Barry Rothbart), who feels like he dropped in from another comedy altogether. And no matter what story it’s telling, the show is always careful to emphasize that it isn’t just about a squirrelly dog, but rather ordinary people doing ordinary things.
In that vein, Downward Dog is set and shot in Pittsburgh, and stands out among some of ABC’s splashier sitcoms. You won’t find the sleek, Technicolor glory of Modern Family or Black-ish here; you won’t even find the light clutter of Fresh Off the Boat or The Middle, only there to hide otherwise spotless living rooms. Nan’s house deliberately shows the wear and tear of a real life, with stray wires creeping around corners and dust smearing windows.
At home, we see Nan through Martin’s eyes, equal parts pitying and fiercely loving. Martin watches as Nan heats up hasty microwave dinners and keeps going back to Jason — despite her best efforts to leave him behind and focus on work — with an expression as close to a furrowed brow as a lovable mutt could possibly get. (In Nan’s defense, Tolman and Neff have such an easy chemistry that them falling back together just feels inevitable.)
But no matter what Nan does or doesn’t do for him, Martin is always and forever in total awe of her. "In the beginning, there was Nan. And she made everything,” Martin tells us in episode two, “...and she saw that it was empty and small, and there was nothing cuddly or amazing. So she found me." This kind of line comes from the exact place where both Martin and Downward Dog thrive: deeply affectionate, slightly twisted, and completely unto their own bizarre selves.
Downward Dog premieres May 17 at 9:30 pm on ABC following the season finale of Modern Family. The show will move to its regular time slot of Tuesdays at 8 pm starting on May 23.