Why Downward Dog Deserves to Be Rescued

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Photo: Craig Sjodin/ABC

When I saw the promos for Downward Dog, I grimaced. A woman’s life narrated by her dog? Her dog who actually talks, with its mouth animated so that it moves? A dog who draws clichéd conclusions about love and life from the necessarily narrow and simplistic perspective of being … you know … a dog? The show seemed like it had all the ingredients to be terrible. I figured it’d be like Chicken Soup for a Dog Lover’s Soul, but with a cutesier name and moving dog lips straight out of the uncanny valley. Worse, I thought, it stars Allison Tolman, a terrific actress who was getting tied up with this mess instead of something great that would make use of her talent.

Then I watched it. And now I’m here to atone.

Downward Dog is a weird, sweet, fun show, and I’m truly sad it’s been canceled. Maybe you were like me, and were turned off by the promos or the premise or the name. Maybe you caught a few seconds of it and thought, Everything in this show looks like it was shot inside a West Elm. Maybe you felt like you just couldn’t handle moving dog lips. I hear you, I really do. But give me a chance to argue in favor of Downward Dog, and why it deserved to live a longer life.

Yes, it’s a show about a talking dog — I won’t try to pretend otherwise. Accordingly, Downward Dog takes advantage of all the relatively unsurprising dog-based humor you might expect: Martin the dog eats a lot of stuff he shouldn’t, opines about the ravages of age (he turns seven), and has strong opinions about cats (he’s anti). What I didn’t expect was a show about a talking dog to be such an effective frame for telling stories about his owner, Nan, played by Tolman. Martin’s world revolves around Nan: He cares about when she’s home and when she’s not, when she’s stressed or unhappy, and he cares about who she dates because her happiness impacts his. Through a weirdly successful perspective, Downward Dog’s weird gimmick premise becomes a good vehicle for telling stories about its female protagonist.

It’s easy to imagine a bad version of Downward Dog, where Nan is a perpetually flailing, clumsy but cute ingénue, always saved at the last moment by her trusty (male) pup. Instead, the show has an immense amount of respect for Nan and what she wants. Her happiness is taken seriously, and so is her anger. She isn’t infallible, but she’s human and authentic in a way that lets her avoid looking like a screen-tested cookie cutter for the word relatable. This is thanks to the show’s writing, but it’s also a testament to Allison Tolman, who is fantastic at balancing “wacky dog lady” with Nan’s flaws and ambitions.

I’d argue that together with Younger, Downward Dog is one of the better series in the past few seasons about ambitious women pursuing career success. It’s probably not accidental that both of those shows are comedies, or that they have to bury their female-career-centric stories inside of distractingly bizarre premises. (On Younger, Sutton Foster plays a 40-year-old mother who pretends to be a 20-something.) Downward Dog is a little better than Younger at making its gimmicky concept an organic foundation for the show; on Younger, the premise feels like a millstone around its neck. Downward Dog’s canine narrator is imperfect, but worthwhile.

Some of that success comes from knitting Nan’s stories together with Martin’s, occasionally with obvious thematic parallels — think Wishbone-style storytelling, if Wishbone ditched his Victorian waistcoats for plaid flannel shirts. But it mostly works. When Martin frets about a visiting puppy while Nan and her best friend Jenn worry that they’ve outgrown the fun-loving freedom of their 20s, very little of it comes off as overdetermined or dumb. When Nan dates a too perfect guy, Martin admires a well-trained dog. You get the idea.

Downward Dog’s best dog material, though, comes out of the moments when Martin waxes poetic about his unending affection for Nan. Martin’s love is all-encompassing and without judgment. It is the organizing principle of his world. It is, in other words, exactly the thing I was most dubious about: the goopy, sweet, aw-worthy “a dog is a woman’s best friend” inspirational-poster-style emotions. An Upworthy headline stretched across a 22-minute run time.

It’s also the thing I got most wrong about how Downward Dog would work. I imagined “the lady and dog love each other” as a surface sweetness, generating cuteness and not much else. Instead, Downward Dog takes that unconditional doggy acceptance and makes it the basis for the whole series, not just the bits between Nan and Martin. Inspired by Martin’s regard, Nan builds an entire ad campaign for her boss’s clothing company out of the idea that we should all see ourselves as beautiful. It’s hardly revolutionary stuff, but Nan executes the concept with such firm (dare I say dogged?) sincerity that you forget how obvious it feels. Thoughtful self-acceptance is also the foundation for the stories about Nan’s personal life, which is refreshingly tilted toward the platonic. I’d say that Downward Dog is slyly a show about platonic love, but it really isn’t that sly. It’s just a hairbreadth beneath the surface of Martin’s seeming nonchalance and Nan’s work-based frustration.

Because it is a comedy, I should mention that Downward Dog is also funny, especially when Martin’s dog-eyed observations take on a surrealist bent. His obsession with the villainous neighborhood cat, for instance, has pleasantly murderous overtones, and there’s one dream sequence between Martin and Nan’s boss that commits so hard to its weird, wordless silliness, I watched it three times. Martin’s repetitive narration is perhaps the weakest link in Downward Dog’s comedic DNA — why do his lips have to move?! — yet even that I find mostly unobjectionable because I just like spending time with Nan and her friends so much.

And that, right there, is my primary argument for why I hope Downward Dog somehow gets adopted by a new owner or evades the cancellation death knell. Even when the show dips into triteness, or when Martin’s doggy obsessions feel tiresome, it’s such a fun, sweet world to live inside. I dearly hope someone rescues it, and if not, I’ll miss how odd and off-kilter and sweet this one short season has been. I’ll even miss the evil cat.

Why Downward Dog Deserves to Be Rescued