On Tuesday night, “Downward Dog” bid farewell to TV. For now.
The short-lived ABC sitcom only got eight episodes on network television — still surprisingly more than you would expect for a show co-anchored by a dog pontificating on the true nature of “loyalty” or “boundaries.” But what makes the show’s disappearance from the airwaves so disheartening is that it had much more to offer to an audience beyond the bevy of dog owners who watched the show with their four-legged friends at their side.
It’s impossible to boil down this show to one simple takeaway, but “Downward Dog” did truly capture the worth of seeing the world through different eyes. Martin the dog became the conduit through which the audience reevaluated many of Nan’s (Allison Tolman) interpersonal relationships as well. But despite having an animal in the title, the lasting ways this show will resonate for fans and critics that have championed it since the premiere are far more human in nature.
So much of that message is wrapped up in the very campaign that Nan originates for Clark & Bow. “Look at how beautiful you are” only works as an in-show tagline if the scenes and characters around it learn from that same motto. “Downward Dog” took great delight in pointing out imperfection and showing how those self-perceived shortcomings only mattered when these characters let it get in the way of their own happiness. This was not a breezy saga about a woman with a perfect job or a perfect boyfriend or a perfect living situation. Or even a perfect pet. Even Martin, in one of his asides, concedes that he and Nan are maybe 60 percent compatible.
Part of reconciling that incompatibility is taking constant stock of priorities. Since this show couldn’t survive artistically on cute dog stories alone, the search for something more substantive continually shook up what Martin and Nan truly cared about. In the finale, all you needed to see was Tolman’s face to know that losing Martin would have been a titanic blow. It came one episode after Martin offers up the Grinch-heart-swelling line, “I love this woman more than anybody has ever loved anybody else.”
Maybe that’s not a subtle sentiment, but the devotion between human and pet rarely is either. The kind of love it takes to let an animal lick your face in relative proximity to when it finishes cleaning itself is a mystical, inexplicable thing to put into words. The fact that “Downward Dog” kept searching for those words brought it closer to an answer about why we seek that kind of companionship better than so many other shows do.
And it helped make the show relatable. Someone with a serious dander allergy can still connect to the idea of being put on a metaphorical leash or doing the same to another person or ideal. It’s an analogy that Martin makes explicit in the finale, but the joy in Samm Hodges’ voice when that collar is unhooked is the same brand of life-affirming discovery that Martin finds in opened doors, nighttime snuggles and fine cuisine (which in his case is cat poop, but this isn’t a show to pass judgment).
“Downward Dog” was also able to create empathy for things that can be easy to overlook, especially as they come with repetition. The way to avoid messiness is consistency, but the same day-to-day routine that can lead to dependable feeding times or walks through a neighborhood can also lead to a lesser appreciation for the tiny miracles of everyday life. In the same way, maybe that sense of wonder wouldn’t have been renewed if the show had been, but it would have been nice to still have a show that was trying.
Nan’s half of the show became a thoughtful balance of the competing pressures of city life. Her on-and-off-again romance with Jason (a delightful Lucas Neff) was the rare relationship drama on TV that didn’t come to envelop every other part of the character’s life. In eight episodes, the show took careful time to examine Nan’s interactions with her friends, co-workers, dates and, in a farewell look, her father. Tolman handled these whirlwind of competing interests by giving the same specific attention to each, juggling all of these fundamental life inputs while still leaving time for the occasional living room dance party.
Staying grounded in the twin worlds of Martin and Nan helped make the times when the show went beyond talking dogs more than just visual flights of fancy. A dream sequence featuring a tower of dog toys only made the lesson of accepting the blessings of the present ring truer on both sides of the species divide. The short super-flashback to the dawn of mankind’s relationship with wild wolves seemed like a logical extension of the show’s ability to tap into innate human tendencies that have been around since cave(wo)man days.
All of this raw humanity was highlighted by one of the best soundtracks on TV. Future Islands’ “Seasons (Waiting on You)” is about as perfect a pilot-closer as there is. Passion Pit backing a blissful discovery of the open world. Radiohead underscoring a showdown with a cat. Even having TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” was a tad on the snout, but it cut to the heart of a restless soul looking to break free.
Before the last credits stinger (oh to imagine what worlds Martin, Sprinkles and Jeff could have explored together), the final image of friends gathered around a campfire was a fitting one. It’s rare that a series can evoke that same kind of kinship without resorting to cheap emotional manipulation. “Downward Dog” earned that feeling at every turn. It’s the kind of honest storytelling that’s always a great fit at any network: broadcast, streaming or otherwise.
Regardless of whether or not it finds a new home, “Downward Dog” lived a good life. It may not have aired for as long as it deserved, but it still set a strong example for what’s possible when sincerity and originality mix.