New ABC Comedy 'Downward Dog' Shows Pittsburgh Lots Of Love

May 17, 2017

Three years ago, Samm Hodges would've laughed if you'd suggested he take up voice acting.

"I had a stutter in high school that was really extreme," he said.

He'd started a web series about a talking dog and its not-quite-30-something owner in Pittsburgh. Hodges wrote monologues as the dog, and a buddy, Michael Killen, started directing them. Scripts turned into demos, and suddenly Samm was Martin -- Martin, the very Millennial-sounding, social justice crusading dog. 

Today Pittsburghers Hodges and Killen are the co-creators and executive producers behind ABC's newest primetime comedy "Downward Dog," which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday following the season finale of Modern Family. 

The show follows Nan, played by Allison Tolman ("Fargo"), and her loveable, deeply narcissistic rescue Martin, as they navigate the emotional angst of #adulting. 

Though originally slated as a possible mid-season pick after a standout performance at Sundance, ABC opted for a summer rollout. The show was the first of its kind to play at the famed festival, earning strong reviews and comparisons to HBO's "Girls," if Lena Dunham "had an adoring talking dog."

ABC's "Downward Dog" stars Allison Tolman as Nan and Ned, a pit bull/hound mix rescued from a shelter in Chicago, as her companion, Martin.
Credit Brian Douglas

90.5 WESA's Megan Harris spoke to Hodges from his new home in L.A. leading up to the premiere.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MEGAN HARRIS: The show has a distinctly Steel City vibe. Nan's on again/off again love interest, Jason, wears a Civic Arena shirt. Martin is adopted from the Animal Rescue League's old building in Larimer. There's the Duquesne Club, Page's Dairy Mart, Wigle Whiskey, Allegheny Commons. And I think the cobblestone outside Nan's house, that's Regent Square, right?

SAMM HODGES: Yeah yeah. We shot the entire thing on location. There were no sounds stages. You know, my wife and I enjoyed this really big friend group in Pittsburgh, and we spent a lot of time in these places. So it was really really fun to be able to kind of show those places to the world in some ways. I think it's such a special area and so unique to it. The network actually responded really positively because it had the authentic feel, which you can only really get if you're a local.

HARRIS: And you also throw some Pittsburgh shade. Kevin, who is played by Barry Rothbart, he's talking to your protagonist, Nan, about her very uplifting advertising campaign. He says something like, 'Look around. This is Pittsburgh. Not everyone's beautiful.'

HODGES: Yeah. Well that character, if you show, is the worst. And kind of a personification of people from L.A. They come back to Pittsburgh and kind of like to s*** on it. But yeah, no, he's not a positive character, especially that scene. It does not reflect our view of the city.

HARRIS: And Samm, you voice Martin. He's got this especially Millennial way of speaking that sounds, like, more pronounced than your regular speaking voice here. So how did those voicing choices affect the development of the character or was it the other way around?

HODGES: You know,I think Martin is relatable in that way. I think all great characters are flawed, and those flaws are what allow us to connect to them. And I think because he's a dog, and he's so cute, that when you see your personal foibles being kind of played back in this adorable dog, it's really charming. The thing about Martin also ism he'll make these mistakes, but he always feels so bad about them. And he always feels like he's done these irreparably bad things, and it kind of has that kind of Catholic guilt I think in some ways. His love for Nan is so desperate and he's so out of control in love with her that he tries really hard to pretend he's not, and that's where a lot of his dysfunction comes in. But yeah, I think he's a very human character in those ways.

HARRIS: And all of this -- writing the show, the casting, shooting in Pittsburgh -- that was all in 2015 and 2016. Now you're set to air on network television. How do you feel?

HODGES: I mean it's surreal and scary and, you know, it's really exciting. It's been being talked about for years and years now -- I think it's three years since it began. So I'm really excited for everyone to watch it, and of course trepidatious, but we're excited. I think if people can get past the premise, which sounds admittedly terrible to have a talking dog show on ABC and see it for what it is, I think it will do great.

Credit ABC