Can a show about a talking dog be profound? Downward Dog, ABC’s new summer comedy starring Allison Tolman (Fargo), can often feel like its main purpose is to answer that question with a resounding, persuasive yes. The series is intently modest and spare, with the kind of humane aesthetic that network executives treat like the ratings plague. Its ensemble is small, its humor particular and finely tuned. And its title character—a wistful, thoughtful rescue dog named Martin (played by a rescue named Ned)—comes off as so comfortingly familiar in his narration, so attuned to contemporary anxieties, that he feels more fleshed-out and relatable than a good number of TV’s human protagonists. Sure, Downward Dog is a creative breakthrough for the talking dog show. More impressively, it’s a creative breakthrough for the broadcast sitcom.
Alas, creative breakthroughs don’t always translate to commercial success, and this has turned out to be one of those cases: ABC canceled Downward Dog late last week, ahead of tonight’s two-part finale. The network hadn’t shown much faith in the comedy from the beginning. Downward Dog was ordered to series over a year ago, and its shortened eight-episode season was scheduled as a summer burn-off. ABC has built a solid lineup of family sitcoms in the last few years, and it’s true that Downward Dog isn’t exactly a natural fit with the likes of Black-ish and Modern Family—or, really, ABC’s entire lineup. But the show’s late-May premiere held up better in the ratings than expected, social media chatter has been consistent—dog humor is always a safe bet in that regard—and reviews have been strong. Perhaps ABC wasn’t as interested in what the show became after its pilot; perhaps its decent-to-mediocre numbers weren’t enough to convince executives to stick with it—whatever the reason, Downward Dog is a special little show that, barring a save from another network, will have lived entirely too briefly. (The first six episodes are currently streaming on Hulu.)
Set in Pittsburgh, Downward Dog focuses on the relationship between Martin and his roommate and owner, Nan (Tolman), a 30ish woman who works in marketing for a fashion company. Supporting players pop in and out—Jason (Lucas Neff) is Nan’s on-again-off-again boyfriend; Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is her best friend and co-worker—but episodes, for the most part, parallel the journeys of Nan and Martin as they face the challenges of middle age, consider breaking out of old habits, and question the meaning of life. An early episode frames their dynamic as a monogamous partnership that might be losing its spice; the sixth installment explores the complicated emotions surrounding Martin’s seventh birthday party. Martin addresses the camera periodically, providing melancholic musings on love and aging and the menacing cat (voiced, seethingly, by Maria Bamford) who lives across the street. He’s been described by the show’s creator, Samm Hodges (who also voices Martin), as “the social justice warrior millennial character as a dog”—less selfie-snapping, more esoteric rambling on the trappings of youth culture.
Downward Dog is not above mining Martin’s internal monologue for broad comedy, but it’s dedicated to avoiding cheap laughs. Indeed, as Martin goes on adventures that range from hunting down his feline archenemy to considering the possibility that he might have superpowers—a new automatic doggie door really throws him for a loop—the show’s other half progresses as a beautifully understated character study. Downward Dog’s portrait of Nan is refreshingly messy and empathetic as she juggles new work responsibilities, a grating boss, and a relatively static love interest she can’t seem to quit. Nan feels like the rarest of TV protagonists: scattered but grounded, ambitious but sometimes not, an equal lover of video games and drinking nights, and a flawed dog owner.
Downward Dog is at its most successful when situating Nan’s personal journey in the context of her relationship to Martin. In the fifth episode, “Trashed,” she leaves Martin for a few daysto go to New York for a major work opportunity. Wandering around, she wonders how she’d fit into the city and make a life there; she spots a laid-back couple and their dog in the park and stalks them back to their apartment, observing their routine and analyzing whether they’re happy. She returns home and fights viciously with Jason, leaving her with Martin—together again. “You have to remember to be grateful for what’s right in front of you,” Martin explains in narration as the episode draws to a close. “We have each other, and that’s what’s important. We’re not alone.”
The show’s insight into the dog-owner dynamic is its most nuanced element, in many ways because of the way it spins a notoriously corny gimmick into something meditative and soulful. Talking pooch notwithstanding, Downward Dog operates in a far more naturalistic universe from movies like The Shaggy Dog or Air Bud, but to the show’s absolute benefit, it offers many of their simple pleasures as well. Hodges and co-creator Michael Killen indulge aplenty in the if dogs could talk clichés, and given their ambitions, it’s a weirdly brave move. While Nan quietly contemplates what lies ahead in “Trashed,” Martin goes off an adventure of his own: escaping the house and passionately digging through neighborhood garbage. Watching him race from house to house is thoroughly delightful, allowing us to embrace an oft-maligned genre—complete with absurdist first-person commentary—through a more refined lens. Downward Dog doesn’t malign and forsake its predecessors; it honors them, maintaining their earnestness while building on their potential.
Downward Dog is essentially an indie-fied take on the talking-dog conceit, slower and pricklier and with a little more bite. The real surprise here is that such a show could wind up on broadcast in the first place. It manages to become less commercial with every episode, leaning more heavily into arty short-film structures and styles. The show can feel like an ingenious con—an incisive relationship comedy probably too subtle for even most of premium cable, selling prime-time ads on ABC courtesy of one moody, inquisitive talking dog. The con, of course, may very well be up. But Tuesday night’s hourlong finale block, a double-header of unusual profundity that leaves behind a few intriguing loose ends, is, in its own way, a fitting place to finish. Downward Dog may not always obey the laws of reality, after all, but it sure knows how to talk about life: Regrets go hand in hand with joy, closure is usually elusive, and the love of a dog can go a very, very long way.