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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

February 2016

A series of unfortunate events:

• The pilot shoot was hard. Harder than I would have thought, even after the warnings. Afterwards. Michael and I sit in the edit, in the same room we cut the web series and look at each other. The show isn’t working. We blame each other, then apologize.

• The network calls – they want to reshoot some scenes. We read the tea leaves. Good news: they care enough to spend more money. Bad news: well, they want reshoots.

• Another phone call: Paul Lee, our show’s biggest advocate, is no longer the ABC president. Notes calls get more aggressive. On one, the sentence is uttered, slowly and with some pleasure, “Well Samm, Paul Lee is gone now.”

• And here’s the truth: I cracked. The writing went sidewise. The pressure was too much. Every draft felt flat, no matter how much I changed. I was exhausted, more than exhausted. I felt far from my wife, from my children, from my friends. I was over my head, I was embarrassed, I felt isolated, silo’d in a world no one I loved could understand. I went to one of the darkest places of my adult life. For a month, I couldn’t walk across a bridge without pushing away the thoughts.

ABC

May 2016

But then it was over. I had survived. The weekend before the shoot we ended up finally writing the draft that worked. Like all solutions, it felt simple once it was found.

For several months, we’re in post-production. My family shuffles between a dozen Airbnbs scattered throughout LA’s east side. My daughter asks me if we’re homeless.

As pickups approach, we pore over the language of every email, over the tone of every call. We search for clues in the punctuation, in the time between replies. Do they like it? Do they hate it? Is it too different for them? Will Channing (Dungey, the new ABC president) feel the same as Paul?

Samie Falvey, the head of comedy, calls to ask me to record custom messages for her staff in little stuffed dogs with Taiwanese-made shitty plastic voice recorders inside. Would she ask me to do this if things didn’t look good? It’s Hollywood, people say. Don’t count on anything.

And then the phone call comes. They’re picking us up to series. it’s midseason, eight episodes. That’s good, we tell ourselves, that’s good. We’ll have a chance to do it right.

We celebrate for 35 seconds before the other phone calls start. The torrent of logistics and doubts and fears and jockeying for position. We hire show runners within hours of being picked up, hoping for the best.

June 2016

We hire writers, open a room. It is the most fun I’ve ever had. We all pitch in for a ball pit, order sushi too often and talk about our feelings. It’s the dream.

August 2016

We fly to Pittsburgh, where we spend 10 frenzied weeks writing, shooting and editing. Mostly, we huddle around iPhones. There are notes calls for story areas, for wardrobe, for locations, for outlines, for studio drafts, for networks drafts, for first cuts, for limited cuts, for networks cuts, to discuss the calls we just had and the calls that are going to start in fifteen minutes. The conference calls never end. We don’t sleep. Weekends don’t exist. My son, who’s is speaking a little now, calls me “Papa-bye-bye.”

It’s hard, very hard, and there are bad moments, but after the chaos of the pilot, it feels doable. Our directors are great. Our cast is sparking. Kat and John, the showrunners we hired in those desperate moments after pickup, are better than good. We actually like each other – the rarest thing of all from what I’ve found in television.

Lucas Neff, Allison Tolman, Samm Hodges, Michael Killen, “Downward Dog”

ABC

December 2016

Back in LA, we sit in tiny, dark unglamorous rooms for long hours, cutting, rewriting, recutting, rewriting and recutting again. I record voice-overs late at night, trying to match the wanderings of a dog to a three-act structure. Sometimes I can speak clearly, other times I can’t. I can’t tell if the show is good or not half the time. I’m in too deep.

At night, I dream of dogs, of never working again, of being laughed off stage in a high school play.

We’ve found a rental in a good school district (an expensive and exhausting proposition in LA, but better than paying for private school), and as my days slowly wane from 16 to 12 and then, occasionally, 10 hours, I descend back into everyday life. I start eating better, walking Lulu to school. The sporadic hike.

All the time, there’s a singular, humming undertone of worry: will anyone actually give our show a chance, or are we dead on arrival? Death by premise.

And then, as has been the case for the last four years of my life, a phone call changes everything. We’ve been selected to premiere at Sundance. The first network TV show ever. When we announce the news at the Television Critics Association – a room full of tired reporters being bludgeoned by TV announcements – a reporter thinks we’re joking.

I relate to the sentiment.

Ned, Samm Hodges and Michael Killen at Sundance

IndieWire

January 2017

I sit here, writing this, on a plane home from Sundance. A little sick from the hustling from press event to press event in the blizzard conditions of Park City.

In interviews, I look older, and heavier, certainly than when I wrote that monologue in the fall of 2012. And, like always, nothing is certain. We don’t have a solid airdate just yet, and the conversations around that problem-of-the-moment dominate my thoughts and often my dreams.

“Downward Dog” at Sundance

IndieWire

The amount of energy, of sheer life force, we’ve poured into this little television show about a lonesome, adorable, narcissist of a dog and the people he loves is staggering. My brain is like a bell, ringing from the stress of it, but in moments, the noise subsides enough to gain fractional glimpses of clarity.

Here’s the truth, embarrassingly un-cynical: I’m proud of it. Not everyone will like it, but I’m ok with that… in my best moments, at least. In that theater in Park City, I saw people moved. It’s less money and more work and more stress and more insanity than I could ever have imagined, but sitting on this plane, looking over the snow-swept deserts east of LA, I feel like the tiredest, most stressed-out, happiest, luckiest guy in the world.

When I land, I’m planning on sleeping for a month, but deep down, in true Los Angeles fashion, all I really want is… more.

A sneak peek of “Downward Dog” airs Wed., May 17, at 9:20 p.m. ET.

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