Downward Dog is an extremely funny web series, though it’s a very specific brand of observational comedy. ABC has now attempted to expand the theory to a sit-com and the result is something of a primer on the difficulties of the attempt.
The original falls into a category with things like Creature Comforts, but instead of putting the dialog of real people into the mouths of stop-motion zoo animals in order to make it seem that said animals are talking about their living conditions, Downward Dog delivers relationship woes that we might easily imagine come from therapy recordings as though they are a dog’s take on his confusing relationship with his owner, Nan.
It’s hilarious, but like Creature Comforts, it isn’t likely to split your sides. It’s funny because the dog is saying all the same things we’ve heard, or felt, but the perspective shift makes you think about it, oddly, a lot more than when offered up via a “normal” point of view. The dog ponders the attention he no longer receives, the dynamic of spending so much time alone, etc.
The television version can’t be so focused, and has to build a life for Nan (Allison Tolman). You can’t, so the theory apparently goes, just stare at a dog for a full 21 minutes. Unfortunately, that means a lot of filler that has little to do with the premise, and too much time spent with the silly/cutesy possibilities of listening to what a dog thinks about what’s going in the world.
The show opens as a fairly straight lift of the web series, and introduces us to Martin (Samm Hodges), the dog, and Nan. Martin wonders about the state of their relationship, the investment Nan no longer seems willing to put into it, and where he’s meant to go from here. He’s also a little put out by the fact that she drives around in her car for at least eight hours every day while he sits at home waiting. He gets that it’s fun to do, and he thinks he’s made his position there clear, but come on.
Meanwhile, Nan has her own problems. She recently split from her boyfriend Jason (Lucas Neff), which may be the reason for much of the life upheaval that has sent Martin into his philosophic tailspin. Although, he did get used to their “crying into the wine” time, and wonders where that went. Nan also works in advertising for a trendy clothing chain and has a boss that causes her a lot of stress, mostly by being a buffoon.
The result is that this is a show that wants to capitalize on the clever premise, but doesn’t exactly believe in it. When it sticks with Martin relaying his struggle with a difficult relationship (and not his magic ability to open doors), this is a clear win. It isn’t just the juxtaposition, but the curious power of the dialog it creates within the viewer. Generally speaking, everything that is fun and wonderful about the original exists here, though perhaps not quite as solidly. But, everything else about the show is clumsy.
Nan’s struggle with work, and the brilliant idea of moving the “dog’s perspective” to yet another level within the show’s effort, feels forced and almost insultingly disposable. Sure, lots of people have bosses who aren’t that far from Nan’s boss in some general sense, but not many people have bosses who are cartoon characters. Yeah, when you talk about them at the bar, you describe them in cartoon character terms, but we aren’t supposed to be writing sit-coms by eavesdropping at bars.
The effort with Nan’s ex, Jason, also feels like we’ve gone sideways to the true effort, providing the opening for a different kind of comedy, which makes everything uneven. The premise obviously needs to be fleshed out a great deal to exist in the realm of a full season of half-hour episodes, but the development here feels like what we’d really love is to eventually lose the talking dog altogether.
The fourth episode offers some hope that the show might get its feet under it, and it has a lot of potential, but it kicks off as an effort that doesn’t actually know what’s so brilliant about the web series. It isn’t content with, or doesn’t understand, the power of the impossible to put reality under the microscope, and that’s a shame. Especially when you have actors who are up to the task of delivering a lot more than the workplace dilemmas of a DisneyXD series.