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ABC Offers Up a Treat with ‘Downward Dog’
May 17, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Given how many hour-long TV dramas these days shoot for funny – Scorpion, iZombie -- there’s no reason a half-hour sitcom can’t shoot for poignant. Sometimes even sad.

Downward Dog, a new ABC summer sitcom that premieres Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET before shifting to 8 p.m. Tuesdays for the rest of its run, often feels like the least funny sitcom on TV.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s failing.

Downward Dog just has rather a different agenda than your average sitcom, starting with the fact its narrator is a dog, Martin (played by Ned and voiced by Samm Hodges, co-creator and executive producer).

Okay, it sounds gimmicky. But canine narration can work, as the Disney Channel’s Dog With a Blog proved, so that becomes incidental faster than you might think.

Martin belongs to Nan (Allison Tolman, top), who works at Clark & Bow Outfitters in Pittsburgh. Nan feels frustrated at work thanks to her snide boss Kevin (Barry Rothbart), who thinks she doesn’t have the ideas that will cause the company’s marketing to trend on Twitter.

Kevin provides bad-boss setups, frustrations, and jokes. More often he just acts unpleasant enough to make Nan feel bad and commiserate with her best work friend Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).

Nan also has an off-and-on relationship with Jason (Lucas Neff), which also often seems to leave her sad.

That leaves Martin to perk up our spirits, which he admits isn’t really his thing.

For one thing, Martin has no sense of humor. In many of the scenes between Martin and Nan, we have two straight men and no comic.

When Martin is left alone, which happens frequently, he prefers to philosophize on his life and the world. Mostly his life.

The gag premise is that he sees the world as a dog would see it. To Martin, the world is four blocks long, the length of his walk. To Martin, Nan must just drive around in her car all day, since he only sees her get into it in the morning and out of it in the evening

At the same time, Martin has developed complex theories on the emotional relationship between him and Nan. He is the dominant partner, he explains, because he’s the one to whom she unburdens all the untold secrets of her life and her feelings. Without him, she’d have nowhere to turn. She needs him.

Martin’s love for Nan, who rescued him from the pound as a puppy, never wavers. Even when he’s angry that she stayed at work late and skipped their traditional Friday night wine-and-crying session, he sees chewing up her critically important work project as simply a form of tough love.

You see the rollercoaster we’re climbing onto here. Downward Dog began as a web series and frankly, spinning it out into a multi-week show poses a challenge.

Tolman, who did a lot of comedy before she broke through as Molly Solverson in the first season of Fargo, nicely handles the tricky job of being incidentally funny.

The writers give Martin decent gags. Having a dog periodically descend into contemporary psychobabble isn’t a bad path to some laughs.  

At one point, he remarks, “It’s so vulnerable to love somebody this much.”

Downward Dog does have a villain: a cat who taunts Martin, saying Nan can’t really love him because she’s gone all day.

Nan, in fact, does love Martin, and Downward Dog doesn’t hesitate to play the damp handkerchief card with frequent reminders of the bond between people and their dogs.

The bond is less sturdy between TV shows and TV viewers, though, and Downward Dog is betting that perhaps we’re ready for a sitcom that tugs the heartstrings as often as it tickles the funnybone.

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