Dogs have walked, dozed, and cuddled by our sides for as long as 30,000 years, but Dogs couldn’t have existed before the current streaming era. Set in disparate locations and contexts, Netflix’s handsome six-part docuseries invites both cynicism and admiration. Its to-the-point title, family-friendly subject, and holiday-adjacent arrival suggest a crass commercialism appropriate for the Christmas season; it’s an easy click for families who’ve run out of things to talk about and in need of wholesome, non-polarizing distractions. You can’t get any more feel-good than the first episode, which centers on a girl with a life-threatening type of epilepsy and the seizure-sniffing service dog that transforms her existence. If the naturalistic pace adopted by Oscar-nominated documentarian Heidi Ewing (co-director of Detropia, Jesus Camp, and The Boys of Baraka) proves poky, chances are that Netflix, with its edict to keep users on the site, won’t mind the series’ bloated length.
It’s hard not to laud the experiment that Dogs represents. Netflix’s deep pockets, artists-first ethos, consistently solid production values, and endless desire for content seem here to have given filmmakers a canine-related prompt and a shot to pursue the subjects that interest them. The result is several unexpected stories, some with few natural target audiences.
Director Amy Berg (West of Memphis, Deliver Us From Evil), another Oscar nominee, follows the arduous efforts of a Syrian refugee to bring his husky to Berlin in the second episode, arguing with poignant persuasiveness that broken bonds between people and pets are all too easily forgotten in discussions about the costs of war. The series’ other standout installment, its fifth, asks whether a Costa Rican refuge for abandoned dogs with over 1,000 canines in its care can truly do right by the animals it aims to serve. In contrast, the third episode, about an Italian fishing clan caught between tradition and opportunity, has hardly anything to do with the family pet, though it does feature the golden Lab rather prominently. Often, Dogs strives to update the overlooked genre of heartwarming tales with arthouse legitimacy. Call it Chicken Soup for the A24 Soul.
But that exploratory spirit doesn’t necessarily yield pleasure or prestige. In fact, it arguably leads to Dogs’ most uninviting qualities: its sedate pacing and inflated running times. At least half of the installments don’t have enough material to sustain an hour’s worth of storytelling, even when padded with gorgeously lit and composed scenes of doggos being doggos. At its worst, the series feels smothered by tastefulness. That there’s no overarching thematic approach robs the series of a larger sense of purpose. A lighthearted episode about cultural clashes in the international competitive dog grooming world flirts with “Japan is so weird” stereotyping. The hoped-for evolution of uplift into something more artful never quite takes place.
But if Dogs has a mixed record on the feel-good side, it wildly succeeds in its more conventional feel-bad mode. The series doesn’t need to remind us of the inherent worth of dogs, but it does rightly evoke the vulnerability of the animals we call our best friends. We love dogs when they’re loyal companions and against-the-odds saviors and goofy social-media stars, but the dogs that aren’t so readily apparent are defenseless and myriad. It’s only by chance that the husky trapped amid the Syrian civil war has survived two poisonings (no thanks to the people striving to kill all the dogs in its neighborhood). The 1,200 canines (and counting) in the Costa Rican sanctuary can speak to the cruel negligence of their former owners. The network of New York City dog-rescue volunteers profiled in the finale might boost your spirits, or they might highlight the enormity of the problem they’re trying to solve. By focusing on the love and dependence that humans have for dogs (rather than the dogs themselves), the series questions whether sheer affection is enough. Anyone who watches documentaries with some regularity will find themselves in a familiar place with Dogs: wondering why human beings always seem to be the worst species.