‘Downward Dog’ Finale: Saying Goodbye to a Show That Was More Human Than Anything Else on TV

One of the best new shows of 2017 ended far too soon, but it captured the universal experiences of dog and cat (and allergic) people alike.

On Tuesday night, “Downward Dog” bid farewell to TV. For now.

The short-lived ABC sitcom only got eight episodes on network television — still surprisingly more than you would expect for a show co-anchored by a dog pontificating on the true nature of “loyalty” or “boundaries.” But what makes the show’s disappearance from the airwaves so disheartening is that it had much more to offer to an audience beyond the bevy of dog owners who watched the show with their four-legged friends at their side.

It’s impossible to boil down this show to one simple takeaway, but “Downward Dog” did truly capture the worth of seeing the world through different eyes. Martin the dog became the conduit through which the audience reevaluated many of Nan’s (Allison Tolman) interpersonal relationships as well. But despite having an animal in the title, the lasting ways this show will resonate for fans and critics that have championed it since the premiere are far more human in nature.

READ MORE: ‘Downward Dog’: How Overcoming a Speech Impediment Inspired the Voice of TV’s Most Compelling Canine

So much of that message is wrapped up in the very campaign that Nan originates for Clark & Bow. “Look at how beautiful you are” only works as an in-show tagline if the scenes and characters around it learn from that same motto. “Downward Dog” took great delight in pointing out imperfection and showing how those self-perceived shortcomings only mattered when these characters let it get in the way of their own happiness. This was not a breezy saga about a woman with a perfect job or a perfect boyfriend or a perfect living situation. Or even a perfect pet. Even Martin, in one of his asides, concedes that he and Nan are maybe 60 percent compatible.

Part of reconciling that incompatibility is taking constant stock of priorities. Since this show couldn’t survive artistically on cute dog stories alone, the search for something more substantive continually shook up what Martin and Nan truly cared about. In the finale, all you needed to see was Tolman’s face to know that losing Martin would have been a titanic blow. It came one episode after Martin offers up the Grinch-heart-swelling line, “I love this woman more than anybody has ever loved anybody else.”

Maybe that’s not a subtle sentiment, but the devotion between human and pet rarely is either. The kind of love it takes to let an animal lick your face in relative proximity to when it finishes cleaning itself is a mystical, inexplicable thing to put into words. The fact that “Downward Dog” kept searching for those words brought it closer to an answer about why we seek that kind of companionship better than so many other shows do.

And it helped make the show relatable. Someone with a serious dander allergy can still connect to the idea of being put on a metaphorical leash or doing the same to another person or ideal. It’s an analogy that Martin makes explicit in the finale, but the joy in Samm Hodges’ voice when that collar is unhooked is the same brand of life-affirming discovery that Martin finds in opened doors, nighttime snuggles and fine cuisine (which in his case is cat poop, but this isn’t a show to pass judgment).

DOWNWARD DOG - "The Full Package" - Nan meets Eric, (guest star Timothy Odmundson) an attractive dog owner who appears to be the older, more successful version of Jason, and enlists his help with Martin, secretly hoping to score a date. But when Martin spends time with Eric's well-trained dog, it thrusts Martin into a crisis of self-confidence, on "Downward Dog," TUESDAY, JUNE 6 (8:00-8:30 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Donald Rager)NED, LUCAS NEFF, ALLISON TOLMAN

“Downward Dog”

ABC

“Downward Dog” was also able to create empathy for things that can be easy to overlook, especially as they come with repetition. The way to avoid messiness is consistency, but the same day-to-day routine that can lead to dependable feeding times or walks through a neighborhood can also lead to a lesser appreciation for the tiny miracles of everyday life. In the same way, maybe that sense of wonder wouldn’t have been renewed if the show had been, but it would have been nice to still have a show that was trying.

Nan’s half of the show became a thoughtful balance of the competing pressures of city life. Her on-and-off-again romance with Jason (a delightful Lucas Neff) was the rare relationship drama on TV that didn’t come to envelop every other part of the character’s life. In eight episodes, the show took careful time to examine Nan’s interactions with her friends, co-workers, dates and, in a farewell look, her father. Tolman handled these whirlwind of competing interests by giving the same specific attention to each, juggling all of these fundamental life inputs while still leaving time for the occasional living room dance party.

Staying grounded in the twin worlds of Martin and Nan helped make the times when the show went beyond talking dogs more than just visual flights of fancy. A dream sequence featuring a tower of dog toys only made the lesson of accepting the blessings of the present ring truer on both sides of the species divide. The short super-flashback to the dawn of mankind’s relationship with wild wolves seemed like a logical extension of the show’s ability to tap into innate human tendencies that have been around since cave(wo)man days.

READ MORE: ‘Downward Dog’ Creator Shares His Diary on How This Unlikely Show Ever Got Made

All of this raw humanity was highlighted by one of the best soundtracks on TV. Future Islands’ “Seasons (Waiting on You)” is about as perfect a pilot-closer as there is. Passion Pit backing a blissful discovery of the open world. Radiohead underscoring a showdown with a cat. Even having TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” was a tad on the snout, but it cut to the heart of a restless soul looking to break free.

Before the last credits stinger (oh to imagine what worlds Martin, Sprinkles and Jeff could have explored together), the final image of friends gathered around a campfire was a fitting one. It’s rare that a series can evoke that same kind of kinship without resorting to cheap emotional manipulation. “Downward Dog” earned that feeling at every turn. It’s the kind of honest storytelling that’s always a great fit at any network: broadcast, streaming or otherwise.

Regardless of whether or not it finds a new home, “Downward Dog” lived a good life. It may not have aired for as long as it deserved, but it still set a strong example for what’s possible when sincerity and originality mix.

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‘Downward Dog’: Allison Tolman Talks About Strong Single Women, Smart Pups and Season 1 Guest Stars — Watch

The show’s star also talked about on-screen chemistry and what the show gained from filming in Pittsburgh.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Even with a star canine and the second word of its title, “Downward Dog” is one of the most human shows on TV.

Allison Tolman plays Nan, the show’s lead character, through a string of ups and downs that come when professional and romantic life have their uncertainties. Working on the marketing team for a clothing retailer while working through a breakup, Nan has a sleazy boss and an ambiguous dating situation.

READ MORE: ‘Downward Dog’ Creator Shares His Diary on How This Unlikely Show Ever Got Made

It’s a complicated life for an interesting character; one that serves as the center for half of the show. The other half is her opposite: the internal musings of her trusty dog, Martin. Tolman sat down with IndieWire for an interview (via Facebook Live), where she talked about the challenges that go into an uncharacteristic TV comedy and what fans might expect in the coming weeks.

Tolman herself isn’t a dog owner, but Nan was the kind of role that she said she wanted to play after her starring role in Season 1 of FX’s “Fargo.” Not wanting to be confined to roles as wives or mothers, Tolman found something exciting in playing the more independent parts of Nan.

“It is fun to get to go to work and know that as long as I’ve got my lines memorized, I’m going to be pretty on point, because she’s not that far from me,” Tolman said.

DOWNWARD DOG - "The Full Package" - Nan meets Eric, (guest star Timothy Odmundson) an attractive dog owner who appears to be the older, more successful version of Jason, and enlists his help with Martin, secretly hoping to score a date. But when Martin spends time with Eric's well-trained dog, it thrusts Martin into a crisis of self-confidence, on "Downward Dog," TUESDAY, JUNE 6 (8:00-8:30 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Donald Rager)NED, LUCAS NEFF, ALLISON TOLMAN

Ned, Lucas Neff and Allison Tolman in “Downward Dog”

ABC/Donald Rager

Tolman also talked about filming the series in and around Pittsburgh, which gives the show a perspective from a city outside New York and Los Angeles.

“We talk about representation in television and movies and seeing people who look like us and seeing people who remind us of ourselves,” she said. “I also think it’s really nice to show different regions of the country. This is how people live, this is what the houses are like, this is what the weather’s like. I think that’s really valuable.”

READ MORE: ‘Downward Dog’ Review: ABC’s Very Good Canine Comedy Instantly Shakes the Network TV Format

And of course, it’s impossible to talk about “Downward Dog” and not mention Ned, the show’s canine co-star. Tolman talked up the dog behind Martin, Nan’s beloved companion, explaining that’s not your average pet.

“We would have days where he was having to do a really simple behavior, where he would have to walk and sit down. If we did it for too much time, the Tiffany, the trainer, would say, ‘I gotta take him outside and teach him something more exciting and exercise his brain a little!’ He’d get bored, because he’s so smart.”

“Downward Dog” has five more episodes before its season comes to a close. Tolman teased a few of the guest stars that will pop up in the weeks to come, including Nichelle Nichols, Louis Herthum, and this week’s guest, Timothy Omundson.

Watch the full interview with Tolman below:

“Downward Dog” airs on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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‘The Americans’ Race to Save a Life in the Season 5 Finale — What to Watch on Tuesday, May 30

Our picks of the best things on TV tonight also includes a talking dog and and a helpful guide to predicting the future.

Welcome to PeekTV, your daily look at the best that television has to offer. In each installment, we make three picks for the best shows to watch and…toss in a little extra. 

Tuesday, May 30

The Americans  (FX, 10 p.m.) – In the season finale, Philip and Elizabeth race against the clock as a life hangs in the balance, while Stan faces an uncertain future.
It’s your last chance to savor a new hour with the Jennings family until 2018. Unsurprisingly, this whirlwind season has built to a pretty thrilling conclusion.

Animal Kingdom (TNT, 9 p.m.) – A risky heist misfires and the boys blame Smurf, sending shock waves through the family, in the Season 2 premiere. Also: Baz deals with being a single parent; and Deran plans for the future.
As one family saga goes on hiatus, one returns for another round. Ellen Barkin and company are back for more tales from the underbelly of the diabolical crime clan.

“Breakthrough” (NatGeo, 7 p.m.) – A look at how computers find hidden patterns that can predict the future in big data, and change it.
What better guide to understanding how people are predicting the future than co-director Shane Carruth? The filmmaker behind “Primer” — the mindbender to end all mindbenders, which featured characters using their knowledge of the future to their advantage — is also joined by narrator Aaron Eckhart.

Downward Dog (ABC, 8 p.m.) – Nan takes Martin to work to keep Kevin at bay after she gets frustrated with him due to his interference in her ad campaign development, however Martin takes a liking to Kevin.
TV’s most delightful new sitcom returns with perhaps its strongest episode yet. Nan (a human) and Martin (a dog) make an instantly lovable TV pair.

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Dale Cooper: “Helloooooooooo!”

(Let Liz Shannon Miller guide you through the strange, surreal rush of the third and fourth installments of the classic series’ heralded return.)

Movie Night Afternoon

“Rio Bravo” (TCM, 2:30 p.m.)

“Rio Bravo” is textbook, height-of-his-powers Howard Hawks perfection and it might well be the greatest Western ever made. But beyond the John Wayne bravado and sumptuous Arizona desert scenery, it also has this truly legendary musical interlude. All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun (and Dean Martin’s sweet serenading).

But Wait, What Happened Last Night?!

Hopefully you watched “The Golden Girls.” (Our guide to all of this past weekend’s TV marathons is here.)

Back tomorrow with more PeekTV. In the meantime, him over there, he roped me into this.

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‘Empire’ Ratings Steady, NBA Playoffs Strong Again, ‘Downward Dog’ Debuts OK

On a night that saw the penultimate episodes of Season 3 of Empire (2.1/3) and Season 5 of Arrow (0.5/2), plus finales for Designated Survivor (1.1/4) the now canned Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (0.7/3) and Blindspot (0.8/3), the Boston Celtics may have felt their NBA Playoffs hopes heading towards a conclusion too.

Confidently beaten 117-104 by reigning champs and sweep seeking the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics can at…

On a night that saw the penultimate episodes of Season 3 of Empire (2.1/3) and Season 5 of Arrow (0.5/2), plus finales for Designated Survivor (1.1/4) the now canned Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (0.7/3) and Blindspot (0.8/3), the Boston Celtics may have felt their NBA Playoffs hopes heading towards a conclusion too. Confidently beaten 117-104 by reigning champs and sweep seeking the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics can at…

Ratings: ‘Empire’ Leads Fox to Win Quiet Wednesday

“Empire” has saved Fox once again on a quiet Wednesday night, leading the network to a ratings win — though another fourth-place finish in total viewers.

Like the previous Wednesday, CBS once again had the highest number of eyeballs, with 5.7 million total viewers.

Fox was first in ratings with a 1.5 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, but fourth in total viewers with an average of 4.7 million, according to preliminary numbers. “Shots Fired” at 8 p.m. was down a bit from last week with a 0.7 rating and 2.8 million viewers. At 9, “Empire” won the night with a 2.1 and 5.9 million viewers.

Also Read: Ratings: CBS Defeats NBC With ‘NCIS’ Franchise Season Finales

ABC was second in ratings with a 1.2 and third in viewers with 5.1 million. In the eight o’clock hour, “The Goldbergs” got a 1.4 and 5.4 million viewers and “Speechless” got a 1.2 and 4.5 million viewers. At 9, “Modern Family” got a 1.7 and won its timeslot in total viewers with 6.1 million. At 9:30, the premiere of “Downward Dog” got only a 1.1 and 4.7 million viewers. “Designated Survivor” at 10 got a 1.2 and 4.9 million viewers.

NBC was third in ratings with a 1.1 and second in viewers with 5.4 million. At 8, “Blindspot” rose from last week with a 0.9 rating and 4.4 million viewers. “Law & Order: SVU” held steady at 9 with a 1.1 rating and rose in viewers with 5.2 million. At 10, “Chicago PD” rose from last week and won its timeslot with 1.3 rating and 6.5 million.

Also Read: Ratings: Shocking ‘DWTS’ Elimination Returns ABC to First Place in Viewers – But It Was Close

CBS was fourth in ratings with a 1.0 but first in viewers with 4.5 million. “Survivor” won the 8 pm timeslot with a 1.6 and 8 million viewers, while at 9, “Criminal Minds” got a 0.7 and 5 million viewers. “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” which was recently canceled after two seasons, dipped to a 0.6 and 4 million viewers.

The CW was fifth in ratings with a 0.4 and in viewers with 1.1 million. “Arrow” at 8 had a 0.5 and 1.5 million viewers. At 9, “The 100” got a 0.3 and 882,000 viewers.

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Ratings: ‘Empire’ Recovers for Fox Wednesday Win

“Empire” has saved Fox once again on a quiet Wednesday night, leading the network to a ratings win — though another fourth-place finish in total viewers.

Like the previous Wednesday, CBS once again had the highest number of eyeballs, with 5.7 million total viewers.

Fox was first in ratings with a 1.5 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, but fourth in total viewers with an average of 4.7 million, according to preliminary numbers. “Shots Fired” at 8 p.m. was down a bit from last week with a 0.7 rating and 2.8 million viewers. At 9, “Empire” won the night with a 2.1 and 5.9 million viewers.

ABC was second in ratings with a 1.2 and third in viewers with 5.1 million. In the eight o’clock hour, “The Goldbergs” got a 1.4 and 5.4 million viewers and “Speechless” got a 1.2 and 4.5 million viewers. At 9, “Modern Family” got a 1.7 and won its timeslot in total viewers with 6.1 million. At 9:30, the premiere of “Downward Dog” got only a 1.1 and 4.7 million viewers. “Designated Survivor” at 10 got a 1.2 and 4.9 million viewers.

NBC was third in ratings with a 1.1 and second in viewers with 5.4 million. At 8, “Blindspot” rose from last week with a 0.9 rating and 4.4 million viewers. “Law & Order: SVU” held steady at 9 with a 1.1 rating and rose in viewers with 5.2 million. At 10, “Chicago PD” rose from last week and won its timeslot with 1.3 rating and 6.5 million.

CBS was fourth in ratings with a 1.0 but first in viewers with 4.5 million. “Survivor” won the 8 pm timeslot with a 1.6 and 8 million viewers, while at 9, “Criminal Minds” got a 0.7 and 5 million viewers. “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” which was recently canceled after two seasons, dipped to a 0.6 and 4 million viewers.

The CW was fifth in ratings with a 0.4 and in viewers with 1.1 million. “Arrow” at 8 had a 0.5 and 1.5 million viewers. At 9, “The 100” got a 0.3 and 882,000 viewers.

Related stories from TheWrap:

Seth MacFarlane Mocks 'Family Guy' Network, 'Empire' Entertains, We All Get Cookies!

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‘Downward Dog’ Review: ABC’s Very Good Canine Comedy Instantly Shakes the Network TV Format

On the strengths of its two central performances, the show finds new twists on dog tales and broadcast comedy tropes.

Watching a Jack Russell terrier struggle to hop up on a bed at the end of “My Dog Skip” or seeing the look in a golden retriever’s eye after being told he’s not wanted anymore in “Air Bud” or recognizing the moment that a rabid Old Yeller isn’t the same family pet anymore — those are heart-shattering dog moments. But even though there are canines at the center of those stories, they say more about what it means to be human; to invest so much of yourself in a creature that will never speak your name.

That same spirit is the driving force behind “Downward Dog,” the latest ABC comedy that brings a surprising level of poignancy to a simple premise. Nan (Allison Tolman), newly broken up and drifting about at an unfulfilling marketing job, finds solace in the companionship of her dog, Martin. As the show documents Nan’s troubles at work and in love, there’s a parallel story being told by Martin himself, voiced by show co-creator Samm Hodges. While Martin navigates the solitary nature of a dog’s time spent while the person of the house is away, he delivers his interior monologue straight to camera, via some “Babe”-style, lip-moving effects.

READ MORE: ‘Downward Dog’ Creator Shares His Diary on How This Unlikely Show Ever Got Made

To the show’s eternal credit, “Downward Dog” doesn’t treat Martin as a simple, dim-witted canine. Here, Martin’s more akin to a lovesick college student slowly discovering some of the self-evident truths that come with experience and adulthood. The mockumentary construction of network comedies has long reached its sell-by date, but “Downward Dog” manages to make the informal chat with the audience approach feel like the last viable spin on the format.

The show also benefits from grounding its story in performers who can pull off both ends of this narrative trick. Allison Tolman plays Nan’s frustrations and setbacks and tiny triumphs with a great affability. While capturing the angst and aimlessness of a thankless job, she also gets at the heart of the unconditional love that it often takes to be a pet owner.

And with every successive Martin monologue, Hodges ascends through the ranks of the great voice performances on TV right now. His public radio droopiness works perfectly for a dog who is constantly questioning and reevaluating his place not only in the owner/pet bond, but in the greater world as well.

It’s also interesting to see how the early run of the show is already subverting its supporting characters. Nan’s boss Kevin (Barry Rothbart), who originally appears in the first episode as an unrepentant tool, is gradually coming to be defined more by incompetence and blinding solipsism, rather than a narrative need for stupidity.

DOWNWARD DOG - “Pilot” - In the series premiere airing May 17, "Pilot," Martin battles loneliness and the need for Nan's unconditional attention, while she struggles with a breakup and Martin's recent bad behavior as he reacts to her newly busy work schedule. All-new comedy "Downward Dog" will premiere in a special sneak peek on WEDNESDAY, MAY 17 (9:31-10:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal)ALLISON TOLMAN

“Downward Dog”

ABC/Kelsey McNeal

By placing Martin as a carefree character slowly coming to grips with the realization of how humans work, the show does get a chance to have its treat and eat it too. But if the show has a weakness in the early going, it’s the obviousness with which it delivers its episode-by-episode themes. The more the show lets the audience make those connections between Nan’s and Martin’s various day-to-day epiphanies, the more satisfying the symmetry is.

Broadcast seems like the last place that “Downward Dog” would land, since it isn’t the punchline factory that other network comedies may strive for. But the increasing enjoyment of each passing episode comes from a greater understanding of these two main characters and recognizing how their fates intertwine with each passing obstacle. But that doesn’t mean there are plenty of jokes here. Kevin’s various fevered idea boards have enough sight gags to fuel the office’s power grid and some of Martin’s pre-commercial break buttons are delightful, bleeped-expletive-laced pronouncements.

“Downward Dog” also plays with the usual tropes a fictional dogs as far as their understanding of the greater world — this is much closer to the “Grandpa” episode of “High Maintenance” than it is to “The Secret Life of Pets.” Yes, Martin doesn’t know what the concept of a “job” is, and he finds a familiar adversary in the world of the animal kingdom.

READ MORE: Watch: The ‘Downward Dog’ Web Shorts That Inspired ABC’s New Talking Dog Comedy

But the way that the show pushes forward the idea of a pet/owner relationship being not that dissimilar to a romantic relationship, with all of its various emotional and psychological layers, is another way that “Downward Dog” gets to be about something more human. As Martin slowly journeys on progression from obedience self-sufficiency, it’s a helpful analogy for what it means to mature, regardless of what species you belong to.

Any early show kinks that “Downward Dog” still has to work out are forgivable almost in the same way that Martin is. In its opening batch of episodes, the show has already earned goodwill through astute observations on the dynamic between ex-lovers, pets and horrible bosses. You don’t need to be a dog lover to love “Downward Dog.” There’s something universal about the sensation that comes from seeing the world a little differently.

Grade: B+

“Downward Dog” premieres May 17 and airs Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.

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