The first ready-for-my-close-up dog trainer many of us will remember was Barbara Woodhouse, whose no-nonsense manner made her a natural star for the Reagan-Thatcher era. Cesar Millan is more of a softy, with a line of patter about “energy”—it’s “what tells you the truth”—that sounds so New Agey that it’s as if Spalding Gray were back from the dead with a dog leash in either hand, eager to help Fido and Spot find their perfect moment. (It’s no surprise that his Southern California clients gaze at him worshipfully, as if he were some combination of Doctor Dolittle and Gandalf.) Cesar has come to some mild grief from the American Humane Association and other animal experts for his techniques, but the biggest objection I can make is that the show often seems to be trying to leave viewers with the impression that he’s operating according to some flawless playbook, when he’s clearly taking each dog on a case-by-case basis and winging it when necessary. (The show acknowledges the hit-or-miss nature of the enterprise indirectly, with its frequent reminders not to try this at home.) But he clearly cares a lot about the animals he’s trying to help, and for a guy winging it with emotionally disturbed animals, his batting average is pretty good.
The double-length finale is a typical couple of hours of Cesar Millan, which is to say that it’s two more hours devoted to a formula that has already produced more than 130 episodes over the course of nine seasons, and only has so many possible variations. Time and again, Cesar is called in by some dog-loving soul or souls who have taken in a lost dog, or a rescue animal, or a puppy offered for sale by somebody whose van is parked outside the local Whole Foods. The goodness of the animal-lovers’ heart and nobility of their intent is evident in the fact that they even have this dog at all, but they have failed to mold it into a properly obedient pet through some failure of communication or a lack of steel in the spine.
The dog has been barking incessantly, lunging at friends and strangers, and taking bloody chunks out its owners. Very often, the owners seem to imply that, if it were left up to them, they’d be willing to endure this state of affairs right up to the night that the dog smothers them in their sleep and maxes out their credit cards ordering Kansas City rib-eyes from QVC. But something has forced them to confront the problem. In two cases tonight, it’s the recent or impending arrival of a baby in the house; in the most unusual case, it’s the fact that the dog’s owner, a pregnant woman who has been living with it at a dry river bottom, has the chance to move into a shelter, if she can assure the people in charge that her dog won’t get all Amores Perros with the other tenants.
In each case, Cesar dives in with both feet, getting down to the dog’s physical level and doing his equivalent of the Vulvan mind meld. As George W. Bush claimed to have down with Vladimir Putin, he seems capable of reading each dog’s soul by looking into its eyes. To his credit, he doesn’t try to pretend that this approach is either instantaneously effective—thought some of his clients, such as “exercise guru” Jillian Michaels, seem to be trying to help the show by acting as if it were—or foolproof, and in the course of the finale, he gets bitten twice. The most dramatic of these events comes in his first stand-off, with Holly, a two-year-old Labrador whose owners, Kelly and Hyrum, happened to adopt her when Kelly was pregnant. Now Holly is exhibiting signs of “food aggression,” snapping at and biting people whenever it’s time for chow. When she bites Cesar, it’s startling, because he allows the cameras to catch him seeming to misread the situation and letting his guard down. Once she finally goes nuts, we get some Brian De Palma-style split screen action, with Cesar staring her down on one half of the image and Holly having a fit on the other, even though they’re inches apart. Cesar calmly douses his bloody hand with water and lets a crew member splash him with peroxide, while continuing to give Holly the steely gaze. Truly he is the Lee Van Cleef of getting bitten by dogs.
Holly is the most daunting challenge Cesar has to face over the course of the two hours; finally, after several weeks of working with her at his home, he breaks it to her owners that, although he has managed to modify her behavior, he doesn’t think she should be keeping company with their toddler, and they readily agree. (Holly suffers the happiest fate imaginable for a misbehaving dog: Cesar welcomes her into his pack of reformed bad dogs, making her the canine equivalent of one of the Dirty Dozen.) By comparison, Tucker, the homeless woman’s three-year-old pit bull, is a cinch to socialize, and Cesar needs only a few days to touchy-feely him into a productive member of society. There are times when things happen fast enough, and vaguely enough, that watching this show is like seeing one of those movie montages where someone becomes a great writer by staring at the typewriter and balling up sheets of paper while classical selections play on the soundtrack. But the show tends to be deadly boring only when celebrities major and not-so-much are invited on to share their dog woes.
Unfortunately, the production team attempts to send Cesar off—off, that is, to his new show, which is already in the works—with a big finish, with Michaels and her bitey Chihuahua and the batshit crazy Mayor of Chicago himself, Kelsey Grammer and his granddaughter, oh, wait, scratch that, they just said she’s his wife. While Grammar sits there in his casual day outfit talking about how his mutts George and Elvis bark too much and do their business on the furniture, and he doesn’t know what to do about it and he’s at his wit’s end, Cesar is perfectly polite and attentive. (He even calls Kelsey “a movie star,” a view not widely shared among those who saw Down Periscope.) It is hard not to wish he’d interrupt and say, “Wow, that’s awful, I feel for you guys. Hey, did I ever tell you about this pregnant woman I recently met who was living in a dry river bottom…”