Downward Dog will be the newest entry into must-view TV when it premiers on ABC next Wednesday, May 17. The unconventional comedy centers around Martin, a soulful mutt, whose person, a millennial named Nan, struggles to find her way in relationships, work and life in the modern age. Through it all, they have each other—their day-to-day trials commented on philosophically by Martin. You see, Martin talks … to the camera, as a device to share his inner thoughts. And before you cringe at the memory of Mr. Ed (the talking horse), this show ensues broad comedy aiming instead for a satisfying mix of smart and sweet. It succeeds due to the clever writing (Samm Hodges, who is also the voice of Martin) and fine performances from Allison Tolman (recently seen in Fargo) as Nan and Ned, an endearing rescue dog, as Martin. We caught up with Hodges and Tolman after a recent screening.
Bark: Congratulations on a wonderful show—are you longtime animal lovers?
Hodges: I was always around dogs growing up, my mom was always bringing home mutts who had ran away—we had a menagerie of dogs around the house. Currently, I don’t have a dog but look forward to getting into a routine and adding one to our family.
Tolman: I have a cat and it’s really hard for me to be away from her. I take my cat with me when I am filming whenever possible. I grew up with dogs and a houseful of animals, my mom has always been very into animal rescue, so we had lots of rescue dogs and cats at home — she couldn’t be more pleased with my involvement with this project!
Bark: Can you talk about the concept of the show, and Ned’s communication to viewers.
Hodges: Martin is not actually a talking dog. In our rules, it’s more a conceit to give us access into the thoughts of the character. So much humor associated with animals is goofy and detached from reality — this was a way to keep the world real and treat the canine character with some seriousness and gravitas. It’s hard to do that when you have a dog talking because then he’s no longer a dog. So all the time that Martin is not talking to the camera, he’s acting 100% like a normal dog, it allows us to honor the reality of what dogs are.
What we have in common with dogs is that as people we don’t make logical decisions, we react to environments, and later justify our actions, so in that way, I think Martin is very human in that sense. He’s an animal who is completely controlled by his instincts and later has to deal with the consequences.
Allison: The first episode reflects the lead character’s dilemma of the push-pull of her personal and professional life and the effect it has on her dog. It was important to tie those two things together in the first episode, and say these things are inextricably linked. The writers did a great job constructing the episodes so that big things happen in Nan’s life that mirror the small things that happen in Martin’s life that he thinks are huge.
Hodges: We all struggle with self-love, it’s something that Nan’s character wrestles with. There is something genuine about how a dog just accepts you as you are. The personal growth of Nan’s character throughout the season is learning how to accept who we are and in the process make us more loving of others.
Tolman: That is the very best part of loving an animal — having this other creature who thinks you are the moon and the stars, it’s so powerful.
Bark: Tell us about Ned, the dog who plays Martin.
Hodges: Ned is a rescue from Paws Chicago, he had been at the shelter for a long time. He’s the kind of dog that people often don’t adopt. He wasn’t a puppy, he wasn’t a pure breed. We found his photograph and thought his eyes were so emotive, I just immediately wanted to write for him. We rescued him and the trainers had about six weeks to evaluate and work with him. They are amazing and it’s been remarkable to watch Ned heal from a fairly traumatic life over the past year. It’s been an amazing transformation.
Tolman: From my experience with my mother working in animal rescue — what made him less adoptable for many people, made him perfect for us and this role. Ned is kind of a somber and a serious dog, not excitable, not a tail wagger. He’s not motivated by praise, he’s very much his own man. When you go to the shelter to find your dog, you want the one who is effusive in his love for you. And Ned’s not really like that, you really have to earn it.
Hodges: This impacts the writing as well … you’d write a script where the dog is supposed to look scared, and you film it and the dog doesn’t look scared at all — so you go and rewrite the plot around whatever the dog’s face is doing that day.
Tolman: The character who Martin is has been shaped by the kind of dog Ned is and that is charming. This is who Ned is. I hope that this will really speak to pet owners, because most people don’t have the kind of dog who appear in dog food commercials in their home — they have dogs who are temperamental or a little bratty or pout, and that’s who this dog is.
Hodges: The whole show thematically is about a mutt in the back yard in a regular neighborhood of Pittsburg who is asking if he matters. When you look at a dog in a shelter that nobody wants and say that this dog matters—we are turning our lens on a relationship which up until now has been thought of as too small or too incidental to focus on. This relationship between this woman and this dog does actually matter, and suggest how we all matter.
Bark: That’s a very existential storyline.
Tolman: That’s right, It’s palatable because it comes from this dog, and never seems preachy or too heady, it makes you think about these things and also makes you smile. It’s a very sweet, sweet show.
Hodges: Plus, there are poop jokes!
Downward Dog premiers on ABC, Wednesday, May 17, 9:30 pm, then moves to Tuesday nights 8–8:30 pm beginning May 23.