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‘Downward Dog’ Creator Shares His Diary on How This Unlikely Show Ever Got Made

Samm Hodges came to LA to make a TV show about a talking dog, and it nearly killed him. But he survived, the reviews are great, and can now share his tale as a first-time TV creator.

ABC/Craig Sjodin

Ned as Martin and Allison Tolman as Nan, “Downward Dog”

ABC/Craig Sjodin

September 2014

I’m sitting in HBO, across from [then-entertainment president] Michael Lombardo, with Michael, Jimmy and his head of development, Sam Hansen. Jimmy and Sam are now both executive producers on the project. It’s one of the most surreal moments of my life. HBO wants to see what this looks like as a half-hour sitcom. I stagger out into the Santa Monica heat, giddy and dazed and understanding absolutely nothing about TV development.

Fall 2014 to Spring 2015, abbreviated

• A sweltering month of self-hatred in Puerto Rico, writing, sweating, listening to podcasts about story structure and drinking too much (a common theme to come). I emerge with 27 so-so pages: not even a pilot.

• Infinite phone calls learning phrases like “premise pilot,” “world-building,” “show bible,” “raison d’être,” “why today?,” “upfronts,” “button,” “story area,” “table read,” “offer-only,” “sting.” Michael and I looking at each other in a cold corner office, stunned by how much there is to learn.

• Dozens of drafts. Funnier drafts, more serious drafts, endless askings and bobblings of that single all-important question, “but what does he/she/it want.”

• The web series is rejected by Sundance.

• Much-needed family vacations interrupted for all-night show-bible rewrites.

• A long, cold winter where the sun never shines and nothing happens and I think my dreams are dead and this is all some cruel joke because of course it is, dreams are all just failure machines anyway.

• The birth of my son.

• But then…

July 2005

We land in LA, a pilot, a second episode and a show bible in hand, pitch written and rewritten and rewritten and rehearsed. Twelve pitches in five days.

The second meeting, the president of a major network starts to try to convince us why we should choose them. The world tilts upside down.

In the next week, five more offers come in. There’s a bidding war. On the flight home I’m so exhausted that my usual extroversion turns to agoraphobia. When a stewardess denies me permission to go to the bathroom, I blurt out, “This is a prison ship.”

On the phone over the next month, a phrase is repeated over and over: “You’re breathing rarified air.”

We sell the show to ABC. We always pictured it as a cable show, but Paul Lee, the [then-] network president, has an infectious passion for the project. He wants it as a legacy piece. At some point you have to believe someone, we tell ourselves. We’re in.

November 2015

My 31st birthday is the day of the pilot table read. The previous 10 weeks have been spent in a hotel room, casting, rewriting, drinking a bottle of wine in a rooftop swimming pool while a middle-aged couple makes out next to me, trying to make sense of the mountain of notes and advice we’re receiving. Conflicting notes, good notes, bad notes, mean notes. I know for a fact that I can’t please them all. I take the next day off, go for a long, panting hike.

Sweating, surging with endorphins I say, like many foolish young(ish) men before me, “Fuck it, if I’m going to fail I’ll do it on my own terms.” I try the stupid-scary-obvious thing: writing from the heart.

Two days later, I get the calls. People love it. Or say they do. The difference is harder and harder to perceive. I’m gaining weight. I’ve stopped running. I ignore my therapist’s phone calls until he stops calling. Other ignoble moments follow.

There’s a meeting, convincing Allison Tolman that a talking dog show on ABC isn’t, we swear to god, what it sounds like. Then, here we are: at the table read. There are more people than I expected. I’m terrified I’ll stutter through the whole thing, but I don’t. People laugh.

Later, after dark, I try to walk from the backlot in Burbank to my rental in Silver Lake, but the sidewalk runs out before I even get to the 101. I stand at the dead end, trying to coax an Uber out of my 5 percent of battery life. It’s the weirdest birthday I’ve ever had.

Next page: More bad news. What happens when the network president, your biggest advocate, is fired?

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