Let’s consider some of the challenges that Downward Dog, a new comedy based on a webseries of the same name, faces upon its premiere. There’s the lack of pedigree (and tolerance) for talking animal shows—outside of cartoons and kids’ series, that is—which is why we haven’t really seen such a series since Mr. Ed. Creators Samm Hodges and Michael Killen have also stuck to the mockumentary style of their web original, a format that’s worn out its welcome at this point. And even though they’ve tackled this one before, there’s also the matter of animating a dog’s mouth in a way that isn’t unnerving or unconvincing.
It’s an obedience school’s worth of obstacles, really, but a game cast—including a beyond personable dog—helps Downward Dog clear most of those hurdles. The key is that the talking heads that Martin (Ned the dog) gives continue to act as just a device to share his thoughts with the audience; there isn’t really a camera crew that surreptitiously follows him around, unbeknownst to his owner, Nan. As played by Allison Tolman, Nan has her faults, but being completely oblivious isn’t one of them. When Ned addresses the camera, we’re really just hearing his inner monologue, albeit the most sophisticated one ever held by a canine. His take on the biped-led world around him isn’t always accurate, but it is winning, just like his musings about his own life at knee level.
Downward Dog’s titular mutt deserves a lot of credit for making these observations work—Martin’s soulful expression offsets the uncanny effect of his moving lips. But it’s Tolman who carries the series. Her Nan is a fitfully ambitious marketing rep who’s also utterly in her dog’s thrall (to which many owners will relate). She indulges her pup plenty, even balking when a handsome trainer (Timothy Omundson, who’s kept his flowing Galavant locks) tells her Martin needs more discipline. But she also begins setting boundaries early on in the series, with her dog as well as her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Jason (Lucas Neff, showing off his own shaggy charm). Nan ends up filling the space she seeks from her sort-of ex with her dog, but Martin also maintains their connection—at least, Jason certainly seems to think he has visitation rights. It’s messy and silly, yet totally believable, which is necessary for a show in which the most incisive human insights often come from a dog.
Killen and Hodges, the latter of whom voices Martin, ensure that Nan’s story dovetails with her dog’s more often than not. Her dog’s unconditional love factors into her work at a Pittsburgh clothing retailer, and when she does admit Martin could use some boundaries, she’s also referring to her situation with her ex. But as charming as her rescue dog is, the first four episodes linger in his point of view just a little too long. Downward Dog often shows a canine’s attention span, only sticking with Nan for a few minutes at a time. The narrative balance is not quite there yet, which is a doggone shame for the Fargo breakout. Tolman’s comedy background serves her well here, but her dramatic chops aren’t going to waste either. She makes Nan’s frustration in her personal and work lives—two areas in which she knows she deserves better—feel keen and surmountable at the same time.
Curbing Martin’s screen time would ultimately benefit Downward Dog, whose human cast is just as enjoyable. But Killen and Hodges have also seen to it that their furry co-lead is more than just a gimmick. Just as we learn about Nan’s life outside of Martin’s, we get a look at his daily to-dos (which dogs have, apparently), which will be a treat for pup owners, but won’t be a slog for others. But there’s a reason Martin features so prominently—he’s taking up a lot of emotional real estate in Nan’s life, which extends to the overall series. Trite expressions aside, Nan and her four-legged companion have saved each other. Their relationship is a good stepping stone, but Downward Dog needs to strike the same balance Nan is looking for, and it’ll need to establish it long before she figures out what to do about Jason and her big clothing campaign. Otherwise, the series might end up going to the dogs.