When Legendary Television executives decided to submit “Downward Dog” at Sundance, executive producer Samm Hodges laughed. On paper, a network show about a talking dog doesn’t sound like Sundance fare.
The ABC canine comedy follows Martin, a dog suffering from ennui and a bit of depression as he ruminates about his relationship with his owner, Nan (Allison Tolman). The twist: Martin narrates his life and speaks to the camera, but doesn’t actually interact with the show’s characters.
“It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to quickly going to be considered the best show ever,” Hodges said. “It’s a low-concept premise. And so I didn’t think we had any chance at all. When we got in, I was really shocked.”
But Legendary Television president Lauren Whitney said the production company gave it a shot because its unusual premise was “ambitious, independent, and brilliant — long the hallmarks of Sundance.”
And, like so much work that is celebrated at Sundance, “Downward Dog” is something of an outlier — a show that doesn’t fit neatly into other categories, and certainly not in the world of network TV.
While “Downward Dog” is one of several TV series making its premiere at the festival, alongside others like Amazon’s “I Love Dick” and Fox’s “Shots Fired,” it’s the very first broadcast comedy ever to be launched there.
“This was the first year we opened submissions for episodics at the Festival, and we were thrilled with what we found,” said Sundance’s Trevor Groth, the main programmer for all episodic content. “We shaped this year’s Special Events slate around the work we received and screened, and went in with the same overarching lens we apply to our other programming: a search for the diverse, authentic and inventive.”
Asked specifically about “Downward Dog,” Groth pointed to its Sundance program description: “Having her story told from the canine perspective provides a uniquely unfiltered point of view that helps us laugh and cry about what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century.”
The Sundance boost is especially important for “Downward Dog,” as it still doesn’t have a firm airdate on ABC’s schedule. The show is a bit out of place on the network, which is mostly known for family-oriented comedies like “Modern Family,” “Black-ish,” and “The Goldbergs.”
“I think this is really good for us,” said Hodges, who also provides the voice of Martin. “At the upfronts, they had this trailer, and I think people assumed the worst about the show … we needed someone to come up early and say, ‘Hey, this is actually good’ to help that narrative. At least someone got what we were going for, that it was a high-concept/low-concept show.”
“Downward Dog” is much deeper, and darker than what you might expect. Hodges later in the season the show takes a dramatic turn, and “the last three episodes get way more outside the realm of what you would expect from a network comedy.”
Still, the show is a marketing challenge. At the recent Television Critics Association press tour, when star Lucas Neff (who plays the male lead opposite Tolman) mentioned the show’s Sundance entry, a journalist asked if he was being serious.
“For all of us, [the Sundance entry] was a big sigh of relief because the show is so unique in as far as its voice,” Hodges said. “It inhabits a sphere that doesn’t have a precedent for, so it was hard working on it without anything else to compare it to.”
The idea came from Michael Killen, co-founder of Pittsburgh-based VFX production house Animal. Killen, whose credits include animating the Taco Bell chihuahua, enlisted commercial director Hodges to help him come up with a web series that took dogs more seriously.
It’s not the first time at Sundance for Killen, who attended the festival three years ago as a producer on the documentary “Blood Brothers,” which won the audience and jury awards. “My experience there as one of the producers is I couldn’t get into anything,” he recalled. “None of the parties were open for me. Steve had a really good time, so I’m hoping this time we’ll have the ability to go to more gatherings than I was able to as a producer.”
“Downward Dog” will screen the show’s first four episodes at Sundance, so it will have a bit of a feature film feel in the room. “We’ve been very protective of it,” Killen said of the show, “and I think that allowed us to keep the independent look and feel to it.”
Also expected to make an appearance at Sundance: Ned, the shelter rescue who was discovered to play Martin.
“When we see him in the human world, we wanted him to behave like a real dog as much as possible,” Killen said. “He’s not going to skateboard, he’s not going to blog, and he’s not going to answer the phone, things like that. We wanted you to really believe he has a normal dog existence. He’s now more relaxed on set.”
Hodges and Killen said they’re pleased with how “Downward Dog” has evolved since the pilot, and they also credit that on showrunners Kat Likkel and John Hoberg.
“In the beginning, we weren’t sure how this would work or how many episodes you could do with this,” Hodges said. “But by the end of this first season we realized there’s a lot of stuff this show can do.”
“Downward Dog” isn’t expected to premiere on ABC until summer. That might be frustrating for producers, but there will be less ratings pressure than if the show premiered in the middle of the regular season. Jamila Hunter, ABC’s senior VP of comedy, told IndieWire that “the series is a big swing for us creatively.”
Said Hodges: “You look at the TV landscape right now and how competitive it is and I think the hope is that our show cuts through the clutter in a way.”
Below, IndieWire has the first look at the official Sundance poster for “Downward Dog.”
“Downward Dog” premieres at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City on Sunday, Jan. 22, at 11:15 a.m.