Great rivalries can inspire creative competition, breed history-making moments and teach those watching the rivalry play out a lot about themselves in the process. All too often, they also cause people to “pick a side” and declare themselves on one team or the other.
Take Netflix’s dueling docuseries “Dogs” and “Cat People,” for example: Launching on July 7, the second season of the former features four episodes dedicated to remarkable dogs (and their pet parents) from Butler University’s mascot Butler Blue to NASA astronaut Leland Melvin’s viral Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Meanwhile, also launching on July 7, the latter series debuts with six episodes focused on felines and their not-as-furry human companions, including rapper Moshow, Wakuneco artist Sachi and trainer Samantha Martin of the Amazing Acro-Cats. While both of these series stand on their own and allow any animal lover in the audience to see themselves reflected on screen, there may be a natural inclination for some to compare.
But although they deliver different episode orders and the marketing around them has played up the competitive nature of dueling series drops, the series may bring animals lovers together more than divide them by species preference.
Here, Variety senior editors Jazz Tangcay and Danielle Turchiano analyze the shows from a dog person (Turchiano) and honorary cat person (Tangcay) perspective.
Danielle Turchiano: I should probably declare my bias right up top: I am a dog person. More specifically, I am a dog mom who plans weekend events around what my dog can come to, made him his own Instagram and scrolls through dog hashtags on that social media platform to de-stress. So, when “Dogs” first launched as a series in 2018, I was besotted. It was full of emotional stories about the bonds between dogs and their humans, and thankfully those emotions were happy ones. It first launched with stories about a young girl getting a service dog and a sanctuary that takes in all of the strays and literally has hundreds of hungry canine mouths to feed. I would cry at every episode, and it was a nice emotional catharsis kind of cry. Needless to say, I was eagerly awaiting the second season after it was renewed in 2019 and, even while pushing through the pandemic, it delivered the same high quality, high production value in Season 2. But, I have to admit, once I heard about the surprise new series accompanying it, “Cat People,” that one almost intrigued me more. This was, in part, because I didn’t know what to expect from it. But also, I am allergic to cats so I don’t get to spend a lot of time around them and was curious to see what the bond between cats and their humans are like, considering I’ve always heard things about how independent or standoffish cats can be.
Jazz Tangcay: Growing up, I had a dog. Her name was Freeway and I had named her after the TV series “Hart to Hart,” so I’d never really had any interaction with cats. I spent most of my years never fully understanding cats. I had a colleague who was obsessed with her cats and she always had things, including a cat buggy, delivered to the office and it blew my mind.
When I met my wife, Jen, I inherited two cats, William and Gia. (She’s a Sphynx cat.) The first time I was introduced to them I had no idea what to do with them. Do I rub their belly? How did they work? How do I pick them up? I think I was the same as you; I had not really spent time with cats and didn’t know what to expect from them. Were they going to claw me? William was all over me, and there was one time I was upset over something, and it was the first time I had ever seen his instinctive side. He knew I was sad and he wanted to lick me. That was the moment I became smitten. Gia was similar, very loving and tender. She would sit on my lap as we watched TV and, to this day, she will find me.
Yes, they are now my adopted children and I love them with all my heart. They changed me for the better. We will get a dog — a pug — one day. That’s our plan. But learning about them, observing their behavior and understanding their intelligence has been fascinating.
I was smitten with the first season of “Dogs” and hearing the emotional stories as executive producers Glen Zipper and Amy Berg traveled from Syria to Costa Rica to tell the story of the relationship with dogs and humans. I have to admit, I was intrigued to watch “Cat People” because I don’t sit around watching cat shows.
Turchiano: I feel the exact same way. I devour all of the dog shows, scripted and unscripted alike, from the ones that keep canines in the background, like “Punky Brewster” and “Resident Alien” to the ones that put them more front-and-center, such as “Dogs” and The Dog House U.K.” But what I think is really smart about “Cat People,” the show that came second here, is that the producers did not just follow the same formula as “Dogs,” lest be called a copycat (sorry for the pun). Both shows feature emotional stories, such as the “Dogs” Season 2 episode where a veteran rescues a dog from Iraq but then struggles to bond with it the way she expected or hoped to and the “Cat People” episode “Catwabunga” where a surfing cat develops a mysterious and unexpected illness. But “Dogs” seems to lean harder on tugging on viewers’ heartstrings on an act-by-act basis, not just an episode-by-episode basis. “Cat People” feels more playful at times, especially when watching Moshow make his music videos or watching Samantha re-train her circus cats to play instruments after they’ve gotten rusty from sitting out shows due to the pandemic. This almost contradicts what I expected based on what I thought of dogs’ playfulness versus cats’ playfulness. There’s something really special about circumventing stereotypes while also walking a tight tone line. After all, it feels like if you’re not a titular cat person yourself, you could look at some of what you see in these episodes as odd behavior. I certainly questioned how common it was to train a cat to perform tricks at all, let alone circus tricks, for example. I feel like I learned a lot about so-called typical cat behavior. The show seems to work really hard to make the audience understand and relate on some level so that viewers can enjoy a light-hearted show without laughing at anyone on it. Also, “Cat People” seemed to lean harder on the people than the cats at times, especially in Sachi’s episode since she is working with felt, not real cats, to create 3D cat portraits. (Side note: I wish she also did 3D dog portraits!)
Tangcay: I find it fascinating that this show wasn’t just called “Cats.” But I can also see why the word “people” was added after. Glen Zipper certainly found an interesting group of people for this companion to “Dogs.” At least the first two episodes could be perceived as kooky, but as the series goes on, you get into the cat rescue episode or hear stories about a couple moving to Greece to rescue stray cats and help them find homes. And while this does lean on the “people” aspect more, ultimately, the message is the same: that cats help rescue humans too in the same way dogs are there emotionally for people as support animals.
Turchiano: And that’s such an important relationship to showcase, especially as we’re still in a pandemic. I have to admit, I was scrutinizing these shows a bit more to see how the pandemic aspect would be addressed when it came to fur family. So many people I know, myself included, leaned on animals so much during this year-plus of time spent being home almost 24/7. So many people I know adopted animals — for some their very first — during this time, too. And sure, there were some people wearing masks in some episodes so you were rooted in time a little bit. But since no episode was dedicated specifically to how people coped with the pandemic through their relationships with animals, it really just reminded me how timeless a phenomenon it is that animals are always emotional support — even when they’re not specifically trained or certified to be.
I think, for that reason, one of my favorite episodes of this launch was “Space for Dogs,” which was the one that featured Leland Martin and his dogs. It was simple: just following a man and his dogs as they talked to kids about space and went on a road trip to celebrate the crew that perished in the space shuttle Columbia disaster. But the way he spoke about his dogs and the way he interacted with them, it was clear they were his children. While the show has always delivered an important message about rescuing dogs, this episode showcases how much a dog can rescue a person. And anything that normalizes four-legged children is a winner in my book.
Also, if I’m honest, I worried about subjects like Trip, Butler University’s mascot. Does that dog really want to travel around and be in the public eye? What if he has anxiety and doesn’t like the loud noises of crowds or flashes of cameras or being touched by dozens of strangers? I had a real #FreeTrip moment for a second there. I always do when studying “working” animals. I do understand the appeal of sharing their stories; they touch so many lives and that is certainly special. But, I think it’s even more special to shine a light on quote-unquote smaller stories and allow those dogs to touch so many more lives simply with the platform of the show.
What episode stood out most to you from either show?
Tangcay: I’m torn between the “Cat People” finale “Catwabunga,” which you previously referenced, or “God’s Little People,” the penultimate episode that sees Joan and Richard Bowell open up a cat rescue sanctuary in Syros, Greece. It’s so heartwarming to see people take a different adventure in life after seeing stray cats on a street and decide to upend their lives to help rescue them and make sure the cats get love and home because they matter. After Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of “Cats,” remember digital fur technology and how that scarred audiences? I think cat owners will be grateful Glen Zipper has delivered stellar cat content that neither mocks cats nor their owners.
I have to say with “Dogs,” Butler University’s bulldog mascot that features in the first episode, “Much Ado About Blue,” was heartwarming. What Glen has done with both these shows is really drive home the way, as you say, the emotional support these animals give us humans. It’s not just here in America but around the world. Even if you turned the volume down, you could see the images he captures across both shows reflect that important bond that forms.
I have so much respect for Glen as a documentary filmmaker for really not making an extended version of “America’s Funniest Videos” with pets. If you want that, “Kitty Love,” also on Netflix, is a film that does just that. Here instead, we get a heartwarming and sweet insight into furry friends — no matter which side of the cat lover/dog lover fence you fall on.