Woman's best friend: 'Downward Dog' reveals the inner thoughts of a pensive pooch

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Jacqueline Spendlove / TV Media
Barry Rothbart, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Allison Tolman and Lucas Neff star in "Downward Dog"

Barry Rothbart, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Allison Tolman and Lucas Neff star in "Downward Dog"

Full disclosure: When I'm home alone with my dog, I maintain a fairly steady stream of one-sided conversation with her. Sometimes this makes sense ("Do you want to go outside?"), and quite often, it very much doesn't ("Suzy, where is the big colander? Where the HECK did I put the big colander, Suzy?").

To dog owners -- particularly single and roommateless dog owners -- this sort of behavior is probably a given. We tend to attribute a lot of human qualities to our canine pals, which isn't surprising considering we name them, live with them, and are met with very emotional reactions when we say words like "treat" and "walk."

"Downward Dog" is a new series that gets right down into the "dogs are basically people" philosophy of pet ownership, thanks to a premise that really isn't as silly as it sounds: a talking dog. The comedy premieres Wednesday, May 17, on ABC.

Stay with me here -- I'm well aware that shows and movies featuring talking animals can be corny and awful, but if done right, they can also be funny and heartwarming. You want to aim for "Babe" (1995) and not "Air Bud" (1997). "Downward Dog" features Martin, a languorous, contemplative and, true to dog form, self-concerned mutt who has a lot to say about himself and his life with his owner, Nan (Allison Tolman, "Fargo") -- though the viewers are the only ones who hear him.

Voiced by the show's writer and co-creator, Samm Hodges, Martin (whose real name is Ned) sounds decidedly human as he gives us an often melancholy look at his limited world through his own eyes. Being a dog, he doesn't really get that Nan has her own life, and problems that don't entirely revolve around him. Her boss, Kevin (Barry Rothbart, "The Wolf of Wall Street," 2013), is an obnoxious tool, and the long hours she works at her job don't seem to be getting her anywhere -- though blessedly, her best friend, Jenn (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, "Love"), is also on staff to help Nan maintain her sanity.

On the home front, things are complicated with her ex-boyfriend, Jason (Lucas Neff, "Raising Hope"). The two recently split, but he is still very much in the picture. In Martin's eyes, Jason is an unwanted interloper, sponging up Nan's attention, which, as far as Martin is concerned, would be far better spent on him.

The show originated as a series of web shorts that were more strictly Martin-centric than the half-hour version, in that the Nan character never spoke. It was Michael Killen who first cooked up the concept. He's the co-founder of visual-effects production house Animal, and the man credited with animating the infamous Taco Bell chihuahua ("Yo quiero Taco Bell" -- remember him?). Killen approached Hodges to write the scripts for the minute-long shorts, and so "Downward Dog" was born.

Ned the dog as Martin in "Downward Dog"

Ned the dog as Martin in "Downward Dog"

"[Killen] had always wanted to do a dog thing that took dogs more seriously," Hodges told IndieWire last year. "I volunteered to try and write something that would go against every trope [such as the happy-go-lucky or noble dog]. We were doing something we thought was fun. There was not a plan here."

The shorts came together nicely and served showrunners well when pitching the network series, in that they already had some material on film -- particularly since, on paper, the premise sounds a bit dippy for prime time.

"There's a really strong narrative to the talking dog, where you think you know what it is," Hodges told press in January. "I don't think anybody wants to watch a talking-dog show the way we've seen them."

He expanded on this when he spoke to the Hollywood Reporter: "People wanted to mock it. People were saying it was the worst idea, that it's the death of television. But even though they said that, people were really surprised when they saw it."

Tolman added that, far from being just a goofy show about a talking dog, the series is "ultimately a love story about a woman and her dog."

Indeed, while to the world Martin is just a dog, he seems to see Nan as his platonic girlfriend much of the time. He gets miffed when she comes home late one night without notice. He resents being pushed to the side when she's having some alone time with "another guy" (Jason). He loves her, but gets frustrated by certain habits and foibles. And he thinks obedience school is couples therapy, acknowledging that Nan is making "really good progress."

"It's not saying dogs are like humans; it's saying humans are like dogs," Hodges says of the show in a preview. "We think we're so important, but we just want to get cuddled."

Martin may not be the sweetest and warmest of creatures, but if you've ever loved a pet, I'm willing to bet you'll occasionally get misty-eyed at his Nan-based ruminations. He may chew up her boots now and then, but boy does he love her.

"Downward Dog" premieres Wednesday, May 17, on ABC.