This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason While the series premiere won't be broadcast on ABC until several days after this post's publication, it's already available on demand.
Is Downward Dog A Good Boy?
ABC throws a bone to fans of the sad-com and talking-animal genres. Should you take it for a walk?
What Is This Thing?
Nan, a low-level ad exec for an Abercrombie & Fitch-esque clothing giant, spends her days coming up with catchy campaigns and her nights with her dog, Martin. But that's really not enough attention for the titular canine, and he'll be the first to tell you. (Literally. He can talk. At least to the camera.)
When Is It On?
The first episode airs Wednesday, May 17, at 9:30 PM ET, though ABC also released it early on its website.
Why Was It Made Now?
More and more shows are making the webseries-to-actual-series jump (see below); also, it's been well-established by now that ABC can't resist a solid "left-of-center take on family life" premise.
What's Its Pedigree?
Downward Dog started life as a web-based pet project (see what I did there) for the Pittsburgh-based VFX house Animal, whose co-founder Michael Killen shot to commercial fame by animating the Taco Bell chihuahua. Killen collaborated with Samm Hodges, a fellow effects artist and director, to produce the series of online shorts that attracted ABC's attention, and the two of them share creator/EP credits on the TV version; Hodges also provides the voice of Martin. On the human side, Fargo's Allison Tolman stars as Nan, with Lucas Neff of Raising Hope as ex-boyfriend-with-benefits Jason, and comedian Barry Rothbart as douchey boss Kevin.
I'm a big fan of both Allison Tolman and dogs, and I know ABC's been on a hot streak with quality sitcoms, even if I haven't really been watching them. Unfortunately, Downward Dog does little to burnish the résumés of any of those three entities. Let's start with the dog, since that's the whole point of this enterprise. He's clearly intended as the canine version of the depressed stay-at-home millennial boyfriend character (think Lawrence on Insecure), which is a decent gimmick for about the first five minutes, and then it's just a chore, because who really wants to watch a sad dog at this particular point in history? (I'm talking to you, people who post tragic shelter dog stories on Facebook...but I'm also talking to the makers of this show.) Martin isn't interestingly sad, either; he's just sad about the exact things you would expect a dog who's left alone all day to be sad about, and the fact that he can articulate those feelings in the language of mumblecore doesn't address that fundamental issue. I guess what I'm saying is that we don't need a talking dog to tell us that dogs are thinking more or less what we think they're thinking.
But there are even fewer good things to say about the human characters. Nan is the stock-est stock sitcom heroine who ever stocked, and I was mightily disappointed by how easily I was able to predict every single beat of her storyline once I'd gotten about eight minutes into the pilot. Since there's nothing interesting to spoil there, I'm just going to go ahead and tell you that Nan's triumphant scene -- the moment that showcases all her creative hopes and dreams -- is literally just her pitching the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty. You would think having a pair of EPs who actually work in advertising would keep the show away from such overly-charted territory, but nope, they just steer right into it.
So far removed is this fictional business from anything resembling a real-life office that Nan's boss actually says "Hard pass!" to her, which at this point is roughly equivalent to having a character on a 1983 show unironically ask, "Where's the beef?!" I really hope Allison Tolman is getting paid all the money for this, because Lord knows she could do better.
Among the supporting cast, only ex-boyfriend Jason has anything resembling hidden depths, but I might just be saying that because, for most of the episode, he's the only person we actually see being nice to the dog. Speaking of which, I understand that Martin's constant separation from Nan is part of the show's premise, but at the same time, it feels strange that we barely get to see the two of them interact (and when we do, it's mostly in the context of feel-good montages). "Allison Tolman and a talking dog" isn't nearly as good a pitch once you find out that the two of them are rarely in the same scene.
My overall reaction to the pilot was, "Well, that would make a decent Super Bowl commercial," so I wasn't surprised to learn of the show's provenance (as mentioned above). Downward Dog's montage-y editing, washed-out cinematography, and aggressively-cazh approach to humor make it feel exactly like a hip, focus-group-tested advertisement for any of a million different products targeted at spendy millenials, and while I'm sure that's the demo that ABC would love to capture with this series, I think they picked the wrong way to go about it. (I was also going to knock the show for taking place in Pittsburgh, because isn't that just the edgy up-and-coming hipster metropolis of the moment, but it turns out that the creators' VFX company is also based there, so I'll let them have that one.)
Twenty-two minutes is a scant amount of time to both identify a premise and tell a coherent story, and as a result, network sitcom pilots often have to choose between generating laughs and setting up compelling characters. There's certainly a chance Downward Dog could end up going to more interesting and/or funnier places in subsequent episodes now that the initial shoe-leather has been dispensed with, but I wouldn't put money on that prospect, especially since the producers seem intent on keeping Nan's boring-as-hell creative job at the forefront of the show.
Downward Dog seems like it wants to play in the burgeoning sad-com space, but by the end of the pilot it's clear that it's way too cloying to pull that off, and furthermore, it doesn't seem to understand that even the shows for which that neologism was coined tend to have a good number of actual laughs.
Ten years ago, a show like this might have been novel enough to be worth DVRing, but right now there's just way too much better stuff out there.
And you know what? There are cuter dogs out there, too. I mean.