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So, you've made a TV show about a talking dog that isn't really about a talking dog. It's a lot deeper than that. But how do you convince people that it's not a silly sitcom it's actually something worth watching?
You get your TV show into the Sundance Film Festival.
"Downward Dog," which is slated to air this summer on ABC, will indeed premiere Sunday at Sundance in Park City. It's the first network TV sitcom ever to debut at the film festival.
"I didn't even know that they took TV shows," said Allison Tolman ("Fargo"), who stars as Nan, the owner of the talking dog, Martin. "We're so excited!"
To be clear, "Downward Dog" isn't really about a talking dog. It's about Nan, a struggling millennial, and her outwardly placid, inwardly anxious dog, Martin (voiced by co-creator/executive producer Samm Hodges). The audience hears Martin's thoughts; he doesn't actually talk out loud.
"We wanted to do something that was the opposite of how talking dogs are usually done," Hodges said. Their dog has "all the modern anxieties of a modern human being … who wants to matter and be remembered and has a really big ego" and all that is put "into the mouth of a dog. And it kind of allows you to see very human anxieties in a different way."
This is not about a joke-telling dog. When other dogs appear, they don't talk and Martin doesn't talk to them.
"No, that's crazy," Tolman said.
"Talking dogs? Are you nuts?" joked Lucas Neff ("Raising Hope"), who co-stars as Nan's ex-boyfriend, Jason. "The tone is so specifically subtle and human, and that's where the comedy thrives."
Ned, the dog who plays Martin, is beyond expressive. He's a mixed breed who was rescued from a shelter in Chicago.
"Downward Dog" is adapted from a web series created by Michael Killen and Hodges, who are executive producers of the series. TV veterans/married couple Kat Likkel and John Hoberg ("Better Off Ted," "My Name Is Earl," "Galavant") are the showrunners/executive producers and they understand the skepticism about the show because they felt it themselves.
"We took the meeting because we were, like, 'We can't wait to see what a cluster [expletive] this is,'" Hoberg said. "A talking-dog show for network? Really?"
"So we show up and meet the guys and we fell in love with them," Likkel said.
"They showed us the pilot, and we were like, 'We're in. We'll do anything that we can do to help protect this voice that these guys have created," Hoberg said.
"Downward Dog" is not a laugh-a-minute, yuck-it-up comedy. It's a lot more subtle than that. It's sort of observational comedy observed from the dog's point of view.
"Because we're not doing joke, joke, joke, we can have it be meaningful without being trite," Hodges said. "Without being maudlin. And I think that's the key."
It is definitely not what you expect.
"We joke that the poster should say 'Downward Dog: It's actually good,' " Hodges said, with a laugh. "The assumption will be it's a talking-dog show, so it's going to be silly. And what we need is some critical voice to say it's OK to like this."
Certainly, the show is already getting good reviews from critics. But the people inside the production company, Legendary Television, were thinking outside the box.
"That's where their brains were," Hoberg said. "Like how do we get that nod of approval?"
"And the people at Legendary said, 'You know what? I think this should go to Sundance,' " said Hodges.
Legendary sent "Downward Dog" to the film festival without the knowledge of any of the show's producers; the news that they were going to Park City hit them like a bolt out of the blue.
"We were, like, 'What? Sundance? You're kidding!' " Hoberg said. "We didn't have a clue."
The producers have since met with Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper and members of his staff and were pleasantly surprised at their response.
"They were quoting episodes," Likkel said. "And it was really interesting to us that all these younger people who work at Sundance kept walking over to meet [Killen and Hodges] and they were saying, 'Oh my God, I feel like that dog talks for me. I feel like that dog talks for my worries and my concerns.' And they wanted to have discussions about that and how much that really spoke to them.
"We knew it spoke to us, but it was really affirming to hear people from Sundance say that."
The producers feel very much like they've already been given the Sundance Seal of Approval to their talking-dog sitcom.
"In our hearts, it doesn't need to be legitimized because we all are so passionate about this show," Likkel said. "But we knew that we needed to have somebody from the outside to give you that imprimatur."
The folks at Sundance were enthusiastic, but others have trouble believing that this is for real. When Neff announced to members of the Television Critics Association that "Downward Dog" will premiere at the film festival, there was laughter in the room. One critic even inquired, "Are you joking?"
Because "Downward Dog" is not the show you probably expect.
"That's probably why we're premiering at Sundance," said Neff, who has four dogs at home. "I've seen the show, and I was genuinely blown away by how good the show is. I'm so proud of it, and I can't wait for people to see it."
'Downward Dog' at Sundance
The first four episodes of "Downward Dog" will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 22, at 11:15 a.m. at the Egyptian Theater in Park City; and on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at 9 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library Theater.
The 2017 Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 29 in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon. Ticket and schedule information at sundance.org.