Remarkably, “Downward Dog” manages to make a dog into one of the most annoying sitcom characters of the 2016-2017 season. It’s quite a feat, especially considering that Martin is a sweet, hapless-looking mutt, a sad-eyed omega who always looks a little guilty until his tail thumps happily onto the floor. But that’s what happens when you give a dog a mockumentary sitcom, where he both narrates the action and then “talks to” the camera. “Downward Dog” even animates Martin’s poor little mouth so it looks like it’s making words.
This type of gimmick is usually relegated to the loopy realities of children’s programming or dream sequences (or, worst of all, insurance commercials). “Downward Dog” grafts this schtick onto what is otherwise a mumblecore relationship comedy, with an apparent eye towards sincerity. And in giving Martin a personality, the show settles on a mopey, selfish little cretin who observes, matter-of-factly, that he really has to “dominate” his owner, Nan (Allison Tolman), to get what he wants out of their relationship. It becomes difficult to not root against Martin (voiced by Samm Hodges) just so that Nan can get a few minutes of peace.
Nan is a woman struggling to get ahead at work and going through a complicated breakup (complicated in that she and her ex keep sleeping together, even though he’s moved out). Tolman delivers a sweet, understated performance, as is her wont, and Lucas Neff as the erstwhile boyfriend is a wonderfully accurate combination of what’s attractive to a 19-year-old and absolutely repulsive to a 30-year-old. In the relationship fallout, Nan has been neglecting Martin, and Martin’s response is to get uncharacteristically (pardon the pun) catty.
Anyone who has a pet knows all too intimately the wordless manipulation of the four-legged (usually tempered, at least some of the time, with unbearable cuteness). But Martin, in the show’s framing, sees Nan not as his “mom” going through a “divorce,” but instead as his wife and landlady, the ol’ ball-and-chain. (Neff’s Brian was apparently just competition for Nan’s affections, even though Brian makes a point of coming by every day to play fetch.)
It’s unsettling. Martin becomes entangled in Nan’s relationships with “other” men, all the while engaging in a self-delusional monologue about how he could stand to be in better shape and deserves more from her. Occasionally, his dog-ologue finds great material — such as Martin’s fear of an automatic door turning into the dawning realization that he must have secret powers over the universe — but that is smothered with oddly entitled “zingers” about the dog’s dissatisfaction with “monogamy.”
Indeed, more than a talking dog, Martin is a talking id with a well-honed sense of deflection — which is to say, he’s a bad stand-up comic. His asides to the audience are the punch lines to his own bits, in mixed self-consciousness and self-satisfaction; following his wisecracks about his old lady, one expects him to transition inelegantly to “air travel, amirite?” But this material, while possibly interesting to comedians, seems quite irrelevant to dogs — who are lovable precisely because they are neither self-conscious nor self-satisfied. “Downward Dog” has somehow taken everything that is most annoying about other people and ported them into one of the few creatures that seem immune to our foibles. In a later episode, after dwelling on his own insecurities, Martin blurts: “I’m only human.” The line is supposed to be funny, but it captures what’s flawed about the show.
Frustrations with Martin’s “character” aside, “Downward Dog” runs into some more basic issues that come up with a show about a talking dog — like, the uncanny valley of dog face CGI, or the fact that because dogs don’t know what the hell is happening most of the time, Martin’s monologues narrate a situation that is orthogonal to the plot. The dog who plays Martin — who I am 100 percent convinced is a good dog — still cannot emote with his face on command quite as well as Tolman and Neff can. As a result, Martin’s stories become less interesting than the human relationship beyond him and the coming-of-age story quietly brewing within Nan’s plotlines.
Perhaps if Martin’s stand-up comic within finds stronger material, “Downward Dog” will succeed. But as it is, the show fails to capture what is essentially sweet and wonderful about dogs, which is how profoundly they feel for us — and how simply they view the world. Instead, for some reason, it has delivered to us a detached mutt who isn’t above using a bleeped-out “f–k” to get his point across. It’s a letdown.
This is a review of a show premiering at Sundance. For the full list of Sundance premieres, click here.