The Radical Earnestness of Downward Dog

TV Features Downward Dog
The Radical Earnestness of Downward Dog

Martin has the voice of your college dorm’s friendliest stoner: Sonorous but not serious, his most grandiose pronouncements slowed by the fact that his mind and his tongue are moving at different speeds. He shows concern over your lack of “self care” and relishes the freedom of the ill-considered act; he is kind and caring, if at times a bit daft, no less lost than you are but still hopeful that understanding is around the next corner. That Martin (voiced by series co-creator Samm Hodges) is a dog might scare one away from the brief, beloved Downward Dog, canceled by ABC before the conclusion of its first season, though this is, in fact, its secret weapon, the phone booth Superman slips into to slough off Clark Kent. Martin’s presence, and the series’ sweet, silly premise, is delightful cover for its heroic undercarriage, squaring space for its foremost risk: At the heart of Downward Dog is its radical earnestness, the belief that to be and to feel fully is almost always to court embarrassment—and that the real shame is to relent to the pressure to hide one’s emotions, rather than staring them in the face.

On the surface, then, Downward Dog seems unremarkable. It follows Martin’s owner, Nan (the quietly magnificent Allison Tolman), as she navigates the end of her relationship with Jason (Lucas Neff) and tiptoes around her fragile boss (Barry Rothbart), pausing on the traditional subjects of the network sitcom: Nan tries dating again (the guy’s a dick); spends a day with her best friend, Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), in search of lost youth (the twentysomething bar is truly horrible); sleeps with Jason in a moment of soused weakness (it’s a mistake). With each stumble, Martin comments on Nan’s choices—so strange to him, so familiar to us—painting people as their canine companions might see them, flailing, baffling, patchy-haired animals, untrained pups for the whole of their lives.

It’s this mirror effect, quirky but convincing, that both forms the season’s structuring conceit—the ad campaign Nan launches for the hip retailer where she works—and shapes its sincere complexion, rearranging our expectations in slyly effective ways. Dialogue that might otherwise read as saccharine (“Maybe love is the greatest protection there is”) becomes, through the combination of Hodges’ lackadaisical speech and Martin’s innocent expression, a kind of childlike wisdom: Dogs Say the Darndest Things. This isn’t to say that Downward Dog isn’t funny; it is, often wildly, adolescently so, particularly when Martin’s attention turns to his own foibles—I’m still laughing at his description of a cat’s feces as “butt candies.” But the narration, which in lesser hands might slip into shtick, is the motor of the series’ poignant sentiment. It deflects the ironic inflection of the modern sitcom onto a dog, and so opens Nan’s arc to an ocean of feeling that other series might mine for sorrow, or simply ignore.

The season’s through line, coming in and out of focus before landing its brilliant punch, is Nan’s Martin-inspired campaign, which replaces storefront displays with mirrors: “Look at How Beautiful You Are.” Near-disasters await—this is television, after all—but for all the humor Downward Dog derives from these challenges, it’s the wholehearted commitment to Nan’s idea that transforms the series into such a rare artifact, suggesting again and again that vulnerability can be its own superpower. As Martin discovers during a run-in with the neighborhood cat, in the blissfully full-throated “Getting What You Always Wanted,” casting off one’s protective armor—be it humor, or fashion, or fear—is a gamble, and yet, while he’s scratched up in the exchange, his moment of clarity rings true. “I wasn’t worried about what would happen next,” he relates, soaring through the air. “I was brave. I was free.”

By the time the subsequent trip to the vet stirs the last of Nan’s imperfect solutions—using candid images of herself in the campaign, embarrassment be damned—Downward Dog underscores its central tenet, its ardent faith, which is that the messiness of our lived experience is its most vital feature, the part that lends it weight. “I guess the whole world’s going to get to see the real me,” she tells Martin, confident because of the near-disasters she confronts, and not in spite of them. “But I guess that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?” Along with the season’s lovely coda, “Lost,” in which Nan reckons with the relationships she’s mangled and Martin goes on a walkabout in the woods, “Getting What You Always Wanted” suggests that the unvarnished self is an intrepid force, despite its seeming smallness. “I’m just a little person / One person in a sea / Of many little people / Who are not aware of me,” Jon Brion sings as the season, the series, comes to a close, and Downward Dog itself is proof that this can nonetheless be sufficient to sail atop life’s waves.

Perhaps I am particularly susceptible to this notion at the moment—if you’ve read my recent columns, you’ll have gathered that TV is often the mirror in which I see my most vulnerable self—but I want to suggest, as a way of saying goodbye to—or trying to save—one of the year’s most exquisite series, that all of us are, or could be, if only we’d be and feel fully despite the embarrassment. For even if these eight small, earnest, perfectly imperfect episodes are the sum total of Downward Dog, I’ll remember it as one of the defining network comedies of this unsettled age, a beacon of the prosaic and the humane in a world that’s been thrown to the wolves.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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