Hit or Sh**: ABC’s DOWNWARD DOG
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Doggos have been popular for roughly all of human history, but they’re an especially hot property right now thanks to the dank memes. Like all memes that reach a certain level of popularity, non-internet institutions have started trying to jump on the doggo bandwagon. So deep is the corporate desire to reach millennial consumers that ABC took a chance on a revival of the god-awful talking animal trope. I went into DOWNWARD DOG expecting the typical back-and-forth exchanges; the doggo dispenses sage advice to a befuddled owner, and then we get a wacky cat chase or mailman incident to remind us that they’re still a doggo guys, ahaha. I was pleasantly surprised to find that DOWNWARD DOG mostly avoids these common pitfalls, and delivers smart-ish humor through solid, realistic characters.
Doggos that comment on our collective existential malaise are the best doggos
This sense of grounded earnestness owes largely to the fact that the doggo, Martin (Ned), can’t actually talk to the humans in the show. Martin only talks to us through mockumentary-style asides or off-screen narration, lending us his perspective without having to retread the tired doggo/human conversations that make talking animal shows so boring. Martin’s philosophical musings on his relationship with his owner Nan (Allison Tolman) comprise about half of the show’s substance, and the writers nail the relentless passion doggos feel towards their owners. One particularly poignant sequence: a blurry run-through of Martin’s early life and eventual rescue from a shelter by Nan—truly the role Ned was born to play, as he himself is a rescue— highlights the doggo’s place in this world as a “creature of love.” My only complaint about Martin is his dialect; voiced by show creator Samm Hodges, Martin uses “like” and “y’know” with a frequency that runs counter to his impressive vocabulary and large ego. While this may be an intentional juxtaposition, it’s obnoxiously overdone.
While Martin is undeniably the star of the show, the humans of the show deliver enjoyable performances as well. Tolman fits well into her role as a millennial who’s too emotionally bereft to use the fullest extent of her talent. Her marketing job at a beauty product company gives her ample space to explore appearance and professional insecurities. Her relationship with her ex-boyfriend Jason (Lucas Neff) also provides some intriguing insights, as they exist in that painfully relatable twilight zone where they’re technically broken up and “over each other,” but still have sex to stave off loneliness. And sometimes Jason takes care of Martin and leaves his motorcycle at her house and stuff. And also they’re totally not over each other at all.
Indeed, doggos are the best conduit for our gnawing sense of dread
DOWNWARD DOG’s greatest strength is that it maintains the wholesome vibe of a show about talking doggos without falling back to tropes too often. The parts that misfire come when Martin tears up Nan’s belongings for “revenge” and other scenes of overused doggo shenanigans, but these scenes take up a small amount of the pilot’s runtime. Assuming Hodges doesn’t overstep with either the annoying doggo cliches or the philosophical noodling—the message comes easily digestible and understood in this pilot, but I can see it getting preachy—DOWNWARD DOG could easily be a show as positive and heartwarming as its furry leading man.
DOWNWARD DOG airs on Tuesdays on ABC