‘Downward Dog’: Talk, Talk, Talk

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Allison Tolman as Nan and Ned the dog as Martin in ABC’s “Downward Dog.” (Photo: ABC/Craig Sjodin)

A sitcom about a woman and her dog, one of whom talks directly to us, Downward Dog is itself similar to a canine: likable, pretty smart, and in need of grooming. Its human star is Allison Tolman, who became a star overnight for her lead role in Fargo, plays Nan, a single gal living in Pittsburgh. The show’s dog star is Ned, the mutt who plays Martin. Martin looks into the camera and chats in a grating monotone about life from his perspective.

As voiced by co-creator Samm Hodges, Martin sees the world from a dog-centric point of view, and has a high opinion of himself in regard to Nan: “I’m supportive, like, as her partner,” he says. Martin seems to think he has a vote in the future of Nan’s boyfriend, Jason (Lucas Neff): At one low point in that human relationship, Martin says confidently, “We decided to, y’know, ditch Jason.” Martin says “like” and “y’know” far too many times to be truly lovable.

Nan doesn’t hear Martin talking — only the audience is given that treat, with Martin’s mouth moving courtesy of CGI effects. Talking animals on TV aren’t novel; they go back at least as far as Mr. Ed, the talking horse in the 1960s. Downward Dog is supposed to work on two levels, one as a workplace comedy, with Nan, Martin-less, striving to be recognized as a creative employee at a clothing/lifestyle chain store in the tradition of Anthropologie. There, she must contend with her dim, short-attention-span boss, played by Barry Rothbart, in a clever performance. The other chunk of the show belongs to Martin — we’re meant to find his dog’s-eye view of the world pleasingly warped. Martin is the kind of unreliable narrator who refers to a cat as “an emotional terrorist.”

The problem with Downward Dog is that, although it’s nicely scruffy around the edges, it’s essentially a gimmick show with not enough funny lines to make Martin’s sonorous narration appealing after you listen to him for more than 15 minutes. Tolman is very good, but you walk away from the show thinking she really could have done better than this as her post-Fargo project.

Downward Dog premieres May 17 at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

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