As happens more often in cable than in broadcast television, “Downward Dog,” a new ABC comedy, began as a Web series. Created by Michael Killen and Samm Hodges for Animal, a Pittsburgh advertising, production and video effects company, the original eight episodes, which last all of eight minutes combined, are still up on Vimeo to see, and though they are lovely, I would wait to watch them, in order to take the TV series fresh.
Opening Wednesday with a “sneak preview” — that is, it’s being hitched to the “Modern Family” season finale — before taking up its regular Tuesday night post May 23, “Dog” is a relatively quiet, at times almost meditative comedy with a talking animal at its center. (It’s a specialty of Animal, which made a chihuahua talk for Taco Bell and cows and sheep speak for the California Milk Advisory Board.)
There are no slapstick chases, no tangled leashes. The dog, whose name is Martin (played by Ned and voiced by co-creator Hodges, with a bit of millennial vocal fry), does not throw around gratuitous pop cultural references or crack wise. Though his mouth is computer-animated when he speaks, it’s subtle — really just a small step removed from a dog staring into a camera.
Martin lives with Nan (Allison Tolman, from the first season of “Fargo”), a human woman. It is not a matter of ownership — when she takes him to what we might call an obedience school, he calls it “couples therapy.” Though he regards himself as the “dominant partner” in their relationship, as the series begins he is distressed: Nan has become distracted at work, leaving Martin alone at home for longer times. The disappearances and reappearances of her off-again, on-again boyfriend, Jason (Lucas Neff, from “Raising Hope”) also have him confused as to where they all are.
“I just don’t feel very respected, as a being,” Martin tells us. “I don’t want to come off as hypercritical or something, but we used to go on walks, like, actual walks. … If I felt like she was doing anything remotely productive it would help me be supportive, like, as her partner. Every morning, I see her get in her car and then when she comes home she’s in the exact same car. And it’s like, I get that it’s fun to just drive around all day. I would love that too.”
Martin speaks only to the audience, not to the human characters, or even with other dogs, whose actions he is left to interpret and judge: “In the past I have always judged these dogs that do the whole sit, stay, play dead thing; like just the phrase ‘play dead’ is actually pretty dark if you think about it.”
As a philosophical creature forming his own, experiential theories about the universe and the creatures in it, he is more Snoopy than Mr. Ed. He is not magic, though at times he suspects he might be. Although he will use a phrase like “societal norm” or “passive supplicant” and “me time,” and at one point describes himself as “only human,” he remains essentially dog-like in what he knows and does; Killen and Hodges offer a generous but not unreasonable theory of canine self-consciousness, translated into English.
There are conventional elements to the series, which gives Nan a sharp best friend (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and an insecure, condescending boss (Barry Rothbart) who says things like, “I don’t want to have to mansplain this to you” and “I don’t want you to go into one of your tizzies.” (Trained showrunners Kat Likkel and John Hoberg were already at ABC, where they worked on “Better With You” and “Better Off Ted.”) It’s necessary to break out the story — 22 minutes of dog monologue a week would be too many – but it’s also well-handled and surprising, a little eccentric, a little profound. Nan and Martin are on intersecting voyages of self-definition and discovery — now sure, now unsure of what they think they know.
As was the Web series, ABC’s is set and made in Pittsburgh; its shallow-focus, art-directed photography and creamy palette, maintained from Animal’s in-house original, sets it apart from other ABC series. As is typical for television (and in advertising), Nan’s house looks too fancy for her income. But that, and the fact that once again a cat (voiced by Maria Bamford) is presented as evil, are about the only remotely negative things I have to say about “Downward Dog.”
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DLS (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd