Animals live among us, often with us, some despite our interference in their habitats. They’re independent organisms that are often subject to our rules. This is especially true when it comes to television.
How we use and portray animals on TV perhaps reveals more about ourselves than the qualities they contain. Are they brought in to round out a nuclear TV family, or do they have greater narrative significance? Do they have personalities or are they plot devices that advance the story, and then forgotten? Do characters regard them with any real feeling?
IndieWire examined how the animal kingdom fared on our screens this year from a storytelling point of view, and determined which portrayals were the most significant. Because of this narrative aspect, we focused on two types: fictional animals whose characters were created for the purpose of the show, and non-speaking animals. This eliminated consideration of series like “BoJack Horseman” or “Animals,” because those characters tended be more anthropomorphic reflections of humanity.
[Warning: Some spoilers follow.]
19. Shiva the tiger on “The Walking Dead.” We’re allowing for a CGI animal in this instance, partly because of Shiva’s extraordinary presence on the show, and also because CGI is far safer than a real tiger on set. While Shiva doesn’t do much except look pretty damn impressive, her presence (along with her owner, King Ezekiel) gave us much-needed levity after the series’ harrowing premiere. They were the physical embodiment of how hope and order could exist in this world. “I don’t know what’s going on in the most wonderful way!” exclaimed Carol, speaking for us all.
18. The exploding horse on “Westworld.” When William and Dolores (Jimmi Simpson, Evan Rachel Wood) were trapped and under fire in a train car, they trotted out a horse with a dead body strapped to it, filled with nitroglycerine. The unsuspecting enemy could only watch as a bullet struck the corpse, causing the body to explode. Apparently, the creative minds behind “Westworld” didn’t quite know what to do with the horse, and it too inexplicably exploded a moment later. Clearly, this was a fun device to fell the enemy, but not really thought through. (And given HBO’s past real-life issues with horses, a bit unsettling.)
17. Mabel the dog on “Catastrophe” and “Gerald the Cancer Puppy” on “The Magicians.” Both of these unfortunate pups share a lower spot on the list for being used as humorous plot devices before being unceremoniously killed off; they weren’t even mourned onscreen. (At least these deaths were swift and didn’t send us into a rage spiral, like “John Wick” did after the cruel murder of his late wife’s posthumous gift puppy.) Mabel’s death served to show the progress of one character’s dementia when he accidentally left the door open, whereas Gerald’s death demonstrated that magic has its limits when it comes to healing certain ailments.
16. Gravy the cat on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Although Rebecca ran over the fluffy feline, this wasn’t a snuff situation. Instead, Gravy’s visit to the vet impacted the meeting between Rebecca and Anna, Josh’s new girlfriend. Rebecca’s unhealthy obsession with Josh has always been central to the show, prompting her to act selfishly rather than seek happiness in herself, and Gravy’s accident gave us another chance to witness Rebecca’s misplaced priorities. Instead of feeling remorse for injuring the cat or fear for its life, Rebecca focused on destroying video evidence of the accident and digging up dirt on Anna. Gravy’s presence also highlighted that Josh was far more invested in Anna than he was in Rebecca. After all, he bought a crystal-encrusted, personalized collar for the kitty. Good gravy!
15. Frank Castle’s dog on “Daredevil.” Ick! Shades of “John Wick” forever haunts us: When the mob threatened to “power drill” Frank Castle’s dog if he didn’t reveal certain information, we braced ourselves for the worst. Fortunately, Frank gave in, the dog was saved … and then disappeared, story service done. It revealed that Castle still had a heart, despite losing his family and becoming a hardened killer.
14. Faith N. Whiskers III on “Jane the Virgin.” The cat was always a symbol of Jane and Michael’s relationship when it went well — from the early days of their dating (when his Facebook photo pictured him with a cat), to just after their wedding, when she promised to adopt a cat if Michael survived a risky surgery. Now that their marriage was stronger than ever, Faith N. Whiskers III entered the picture. Even the mysterious narrator seemed pay a lot of attention to this cat, and we all know that the narrator is a person of significance himself, whose identity will be revealed by the series’ end. We’ll be keeping an eye on Mr. Whiskers.
13. Hannah the dog on “Divorce.” The dog was cute, happy, and comforting, and the hairy embodiment of Frances and Robert’s sham of a marriage. Reluctant to admit they were divorcing, Frances used the dog to distract her kids and present the illusion of a functioning family. In reality, Hannah wasn’t their dog; she belonged to a friend who needed a dogsitter during a family emergency.
12. Petal the pig on “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.” In a way, odd-jobber Kirk was always the soul of the quirky town of Stars Hollow: chatty, annoying, flighty, and essentially harmless. We learned that the town gave him a pet pig named Petal to distract him and his girlfriend Lulu from having children. This porcine prophylactic also helped the town prevent the appearance of growing up. After all, who would take seriously a town that lets a pig run through the streets?
11. Mollie, the unconfirmed Merrick Garland dog on “Last Week Tonight.” When Justice Antonin Scalia died and President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, John Oliver had an all-canine cast portray the Supreme Court. In anticipation of the confirmation, Oliver called on the audience to vote on a dog to play Garland. Sadly, vote leader Mollie, a miniature schnauzer, never got to take the gavel because Senate Republicans refused to hold confirmation hearings or vote. While Oliver’s dog vote was clearly meant to entertain and engage the audience in Supreme Court activities, this particular stunt stuck with us because this was a far more innocent and optimistic pre-election time when we believed that Garland would surely be confirmed.
10. Boots, the coyote on “Baskets.” After Martha realized she’d erroneously adopted a coyote thinking he was a stray dog, she enlisted her pal Chip to help her release the canine near a nature sanctuary. But when Boots refused to leave, Chip began to yell at him to go away and that he wasn’t wanted. Soon, it became clear that Chip was speaking about himself and was finally accepting the hard truth that his beloved wife did not and never wanted him. This episode also marked the first time that Chip actually softened and treated Martha as a friend.
9. Hillary, the guinea pig on “Fleabag.” Fleabag initially gave the rodent to Boo for a gift; it represented everything that was good and sweet and fun about their relationship. Boo was even inspired to decorate her cafe with a guinea pig theme. After Boo’s suicide, however, Fleabag clung to the guinea pig and to the cafe, even though Hillary kept escaping his cage and the business was failing. By caring for what Boo loved best, it was Fleabag’s way of being her best friend’s custodian after death. Only after learning the twist – that Boo killed herself because of Fleabag’s actions – did we suspect that guilt was also at play.
8. The earthquake-inducing sloth on “Zoo.” Say what you will about CBS’ animal-centric drama, but the show’s second season fully embraced the campy lunacy we knew it could achieve. One animal encounter stood out: a sloth, with the power to create earthquakes through the low frequency of its growl, has be whisked out of his tree in Costa Rica and put in a soundproof box. The sloth also can cure a rare mutation. “Zoo” portrays its animals as either dangerous or useful, creating the procedural elements to be solved each week. No cuddly companions here.
7. Minor, the basset hound on “iZombie.” Major temporarily took in the dog after being tasked with killing his owner, then later abandoned the dog on a bus. Ultimately, the dog was Major’s undoing: A groomer identified him, causing the police to arrest Major as the suspected Chaos Killer. Having Major care for the dog clued viewers that he may not have turned completely evil. Also, it allowed “iZombie” to indulge in some of its signature wordplay by naming the dog “Minor.”
6. Mr. Brown Jenkins, the rat on “Salem.” As the familiar for witch Anne Hale, Brown Jenkins has helped with many of her spells. At the end of Season 2, he was forced down Cotton Mather’s throat in order to control him. From a storytelling perspective, Mr. Brown Jenkins offers a shortcut to explaining how Anne may acquire the necessary power or magic to accomplish tasks. He also acts as her partner in malevolent crime.
5. David Hoffman, the German shepherd on “Angie Tribeca.” Tanner’s cop partner is David Hoffman, a German shepherd that the other partners treat as a human partner. That means he’s usually called “Hoffman,” can be seen slow dancing on his hind legs, and this season sat home in his tighty whities while on suspension. The show’s treatment of him as a human in doggy form is a great ongoing visual gag.
4. Ramsay Bolton’s dogs on “Game of Thrones.” Ramsay starves his dogs so that they’ll hunt any prey he wants, usually humans. This year, they became his downfall when they turned on their master and removed him from the struggle for power in Westeros. “Game of Thrones” isn’t particularly sentimental, and even has killed off three direwolves, so having these dogs basically be in service to the Boltons and part of the cutthroat game is about as good as it gets.
3. Corgi and kitten on “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.” Without giving away any major spoilers, we see the corgi and/or the kitten in every episode, and they’re integral to two central mysteries. “Dirk” is a wacky and bizarre show that uses animals frequently to enhance the chaos and highlights the show’s mystical idea that “everything is connected.” The animals are in on the fun as much as the humans, and may even have a leg (legs?) up because they seem untroubled by conscience or logic.
2. Gatsby the dog on “High Maintenance.” Gatsby is a big, playful pup from the Midwest who had to give up his spacious yard for an apartment in the city. The entire third episode of the HBO series follows his adjustment to New York in a sweet, funny, and heartbreaking way. We even see how he crushes on a human in fully realized music video montage of love. The beauty of “High Maintenance” is that it isn’t really about weed, but the varied stories of New Yorkers and how they relate to one another and find happiness. And yes, dogs are New Yorkers too.
1. The cat from “The Night Of.” Defense attorney Jack Stone initially took a murder victim’s abandoned cat to the shelter. Then he changed his mind and adopted the cat, only to return him to the shelter when his allergies flared up. As the season came to a close, we wanted to know the outcome of the murder case, but also — what about that cat? Surely with so much screentime, the show wouldn’t kill it off. Would they?
Herein lies the full complexity of the cat’s role. Not only did it provide moments of levity and reveal Stone’s sweeter nature, but the cat was a frequent metaphor (we wrote about it here). First and foremost, he was a stand-in for Naz, the accused, with obvious parallels including incarceration and nobody wanting to claim him. Cat fate = Naz fate. The cat could also be seen as a metaphor for Stone, who was often treated with distaste and disdain. Some viewers even felt the cat was a key witness to the murder and could exonerate Naz. How? That’s unclear, but he was a deliberate narrative device that impacted how we experienced the story. Good boy.
Do you agree with this list? Which significant animals did we miss?