Watching a Jack Russell terrier struggle to hop up on a bed at the end of “My Dog Skip” or seeing the look in a golden retriever’s eye after being told he’s not wanted anymore in “Air Bud” or recognizing the moment that a rabid Old Yeller isn’t the same family pet anymore — those are heart-shattering dog moments. But even though there are canines at the center of those stories, they say more about what it means to be human; to invest so much of yourself in a creature that will never speak your name.
That same spirit is the driving force behind “Downward Dog,” the latest ABC comedy that brings a surprising level of poignancy to a simple premise. Nan (Allison Tolman), newly broken up and drifting about at an unfulfilling marketing job, finds solace in the companionship of her dog, Martin. As the show documents Nan’s troubles at work and in love, there’s a parallel story being told by Martin himself, voiced by show co-creator Samm Hodges. While Martin navigates the solitary nature of a dog’s time spent while the person of the house is away, he delivers his interior monologue straight to camera, via some “Babe”-style, lip-moving effects.
To the show’s eternal credit, “Downward Dog” doesn’t treat Martin as a simple, dim-witted canine. Here, Martin’s more akin to a lovesick college student slowly discovering some of the self-evident truths that come with experience and adulthood. The mockumentary construction of network comedies has long reached its sell-by date, but “Downward Dog” manages to make the informal chat with the audience approach feel like the last viable spin on the format.
The show also benefits from grounding its story in performers who can pull off both ends of this narrative trick. Allison Tolman plays Nan’s frustrations and setbacks and tiny triumphs with a great affability. While capturing the angst and aimlessness of a thankless job, she also gets at the heart of the unconditional love that it often takes to be a pet owner.
And with every successive Martin monologue, Hodges ascends through the ranks of the great voice performances on TV right now. His public radio droopiness works perfectly for a dog who is constantly questioning and reevaluating his place not only in the owner/pet bond, but in the greater world as well.
It’s also interesting to see how the early run of the show is already subverting its supporting characters. Nan’s boss Kevin (Barry Rothbart), who originally appears in the first episode as an unrepentant tool, is gradually coming to be defined more by incompetence and blinding solipsism, rather than a narrative need for stupidity.
By placing Martin as a carefree character slowly coming to grips with the realization of how humans work, the show does get a chance to have its treat and eat it too. But if the show has a weakness in the early going, it’s the obviousness with which it delivers its episode-by-episode themes. The more the show lets the audience make those connections between Nan’s and Martin’s various day-to-day epiphanies, the more satisfying the symmetry is.
Broadcast seems like the last place that “Downward Dog” would land, since it isn’t the punchline factory that other network comedies may strive for. But the increasing enjoyment of each passing episode comes from a greater understanding of these two main characters and recognizing how their fates intertwine with each passing obstacle. But that doesn’t mean there are plenty of jokes here. Kevin’s various fevered idea boards have enough sight gags to fuel the office’s power grid and some of Martin’s pre-commercial break buttons are delightful, bleeped-expletive-laced pronouncements.
“Downward Dog” also plays with the usual tropes a fictional dogs as far as their understanding of the greater world — this is much closer to the “Grandpa” episode of “High Maintenance” than it is to “The Secret Life of Pets.” Yes, Martin doesn’t know what the concept of a “job” is, and he finds a familiar adversary in the world of the animal kingdom.
But the way that the show pushes forward the idea of a pet/owner relationship being not that dissimilar to a romantic relationship, with all of its various emotional and psychological layers, is another way that “Downward Dog” gets to be about something more human. As Martin slowly journeys on progression from obedience self-sufficiency, it’s a helpful analogy for what it means to mature, regardless of what species you belong to.
Any early show kinks that “Downward Dog” still has to work out are forgivable almost in the same way that Martin is. In its opening batch of episodes, the show has already earned goodwill through astute observations on the dynamic between ex-lovers, pets and horrible bosses. You don’t need to be a dog lover to love “Downward Dog.” There’s something universal about the sensation that comes from seeing the world a little differently.
“Downward Dog” premieres May 17 and airs Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.