Downward Dog (ABC) pilot preview: Here’s what your dog’s doing when he’s home alone…

ALISON

Stay-at-home Dog“, Written & produced by Samm Hodges and Michael Killen. Also executive produced by Jimmy Miller, Sam Hansen & Kathy Dziubek. For ABC, Legendary Television, Mosaic Media Group, Animal Media Group & ABC Studios. 36 pages.

Description: Suddenly Martin, Nan’s loyal dog has begun acting out -and she’s confused, frazzled and angry. So Nan, an unapologetic woman in her thirties, hauls herself off to a canine academy, initially hoping for a quick fix, but finding out, eventually, that training a dog might be work but the payoff is priceless, proving once again that a dog is a woman’s bestfriend…

With Allison Tolman (Fargo), Lucas Neff (Raising Hope), Barry Rothbart (The Wolf of Wall Street)… and the voice of Samm Hodges as Martin.

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A TV show with a talking dog… in 2015? My initial reaction to Downward Dog‘s pitch was “What the fuck are they thinking?“. And that made me think that sooner or later a network will try to revive the 90s sitcom Baby Talk. But that’s another story I’m not eager to delve into, in case an executive is reading me right now and suddenly thinks it’s a good idea! When the revelation of Fargo Allison Tolman got cast for the lead role -of the woman, not the dog obviously- I decided to give the script a chance. That woman needs to be the star of something. And I don’t regret it a bit. This is a brilliant piece of writing. I totally get why there was a bidding war among multiples networks to acquire the project. It’s not Modern Family brilliant. But this comparison I read in a few articles is not a stretch either. I felt the same kind of vibe. Except it’s way harder to sell to an audience. A talking dog, for christ’s sake!

The fact that Martin talks is not just a tool to try to make something different out of a basic story. It’s not cosmectic. It’s the whole point of the show. And it’s not that basic a story for a single-camera comedy for television. Martin is lonely. Nan is lonely. She works too much, he’s bored. When she’s home, she’s too tired to play with him. In fact, it’s like the love story of an old couple that misses the spark they once had and don’t make love anymore (except they just do hugs here, no worries). They don’t know how to act with each other anymore but they can fix it. They just need a little push to get the groove back. And that push is a canine academy. It’s anthropomorphism in full force. Either you like animals, you have one or more yourself and you totally get what’s happening between those two, either you’re not into cats and dogs and it’s ridiculous science-fiction for you. I guess that’s the limit of its efficiency.

But let’s be clear: the dog that talks in front of the camera -and never at any other given moment so far, it’s important- could get very old very fast. At least for now, his lines are not just funny, -surely they are- but also really smart. The writers -who worked on animals documentaries- know their subject and makes it psychological without being boring. It seems relevant, not just about animals but also about humans. The whole thing is emotional too, and that’s probably the best part. The strong bond between a dog and its owner, the way they can make each other so happy, even just for a minute or two, is perfectly transcribed. What I’m not fond of for now is Nan’s scenes at her job and the secondary characters that fail to spark any interest, except for a dog trainer but just because she’s hilarious.

As much as I enjoyed reading Downward Dog‘s pilot script I’m not convinced that it can become a sustainable weekly series yet. I’m afraid there won’t be much to say after a few episodes. But maybe I’m just too pessimistic. The biggest challenge now is to turn this strong script into a strong half-hour of television, especially the scenes where the dog talks that could easily look ridiculous if not well taken care of. Can it be a home run for ABC? I’m not sure. But here’s something bold!

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