Even before ABC officially decided to cancel it, Downward Dog was always going to be fighting an uphill battle.
While broadcast networks are sometimes willing to go slightly outside the box with their comedies when presented with the right opportunity (see: NBC’s afterlife farce The Good Place), for the most part, high-concept ideas like “a show about a talking dog, but one who’s kinda depressed” just aren’t as easy to sell as comedies about everyday people muddling their way through mortgages and middle school dances. Downward Dog’s gimmick didn’t even have the decency to be wacky — which is, ironically, part of what made the show so special.
Throughout its eight-episode season, Downward Dog was a surprisingly intimate, compassionate show about two characters trying to live their lives to the fullest without giving in to their own self-doubt — and one of those characters just so happened to be a mutt with sad eyes and an affinity for the umami flavors of trash. The series defied easy characterization, a rare feat for a network comedy. Yes, it starred a talking dog, but it was also a heartfelt study of what it means to be lonely and insecure and doing your best, anyway.
It was perhaps thanks to this surprising combination of tones that Downward Dog walked an interesting path before it premiered on ABC. It started out as a webseries created by Samm Hodges, who originally wanted the episodes to act as a collective pitch for an eventual short film. Instead, it caught the eyes of production company Legendary Television, and then ABC itself. In February, the Downward Dog pilot became the first network comedy to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. But the show didn’t appear on ABC’s schedule until mid-May, a transition month when most regular-season shows are wrapping up before summer shows premiere in June.
Downward Dog finally debuted May 17 after the season finale of Modern Family, to solidly okay ratings. But viewership dwindled from there, all the way through the show’s eighth — and as it turns out, final — episode on June 27. (Hodges has stated that he and co-creator Michael Killen will try to find a new home for the show, but it’s unclear as of now whether or not they’ll be successful.)
It’s a true shame that Downward Dog didn’t get the time or space to convince viewers it was worthy, particularly those who might have been skeptical of a series that centered on a neurotic dog. But those who did tune in would find that Martin (voiced by Hodges) and his owner Nan (Fargo breakout Allison Tolman) are maybe more relatable than the show’s description initially let on. Martin looked out at the world through a living room window, longing for freedom while acknowledging that he was almost certainly better off snuggled between plush couch cushions. Meanwhile, Nan took a headfirst leap at work to lead a huge advertising campaign, which both frightened and exhilarated her.
Downward Dog was filmed in Pittsburgh and put an emphasis on realism, even if just to show that Nan was a person who sometimes felt overwhelmed by life. Occasionally she got a little too drunk or left snack crumbs on the coffee table (and who among us hasn’t?). And for his part, Martin delivered his rambling thoughts directly to the camera in a deadpan voiceover that featured him constantly second-guessing himself. He routinely grappled with his feelings on life and how puppies should be shamed for constantly reminding everyone else of their dwindling mortality.
It was a lovely, weird little gem of a show, but it’s not exactly a shocker that it didn’t survive on ABC. Downward Dog was many things — gracious and kind, sincere and strange — but it wasn’t cut out to be a network comedy. If the show finds another home (and I hope it does!), it will hopefully be somewhere on a network where its oddness will be a blessing, not a curse.