Watching HBO (not TV!) this past Sunday, I was reminded of a blog post I read by Christie Keith on Pet Connection several months ago. She noted the lack of pets in TV comedies or dramas (in the larger context of a similar dearth of gay and lesbian characters), deeming it especially odd given the fact that some 70% of U.S. households are shared with pets.

No question. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days of dogcentric dramas like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, set in a nonexistent but oh-so-enticing rural America. They gave me the sense that people who grew up in small apartments in Brooklyn with mothers who feared all creatures great and small couldn’t possibly give a dog a good life. Nor are such shows fair to dogs, who are given impossibly high standards to meet. Frankie, for example, would not be able to alert me to a small child falling into a well; he’s not tall enough to peer over the rim.

And, I know, it’s tough to give dogs supporting roles because they’re so likely to upstage the main characters. Still, we can do better than our current fare, or lack thereof.

Here, then, are my picks for the worst, best, and most creative depictions of dogs on TV today. I’m not going to try to explain the premises or plots of these shows for the uninitiated. Suffice it to say they’re all very much worth watching, even if one of them really stepped in it, dog wise.

Best showcase for dogs: Saving Grace is the hands down winner. Grace’s bulldog, Gus, puts in an appearance in every show and an entire episode was devoted to Grace’s search for Gus when he got lost. Another episode depicted the death of her police unit’s beloved German Shepherd, killed in action and mourned by all. And what can you say about a show that brings to life the slogan “In Dog We Trust”? Twice, Grace’s blue-collar, beer-swilling guardian angel, Earl, has alluded to a long-tongued dog as his “boss.”

I don’t watch the show for its Last Chance Angel theology, but for the amazing Holly Hunter (who, in an NPR interview, said she doesn’t believe in angels either) and the good supporting cast.  Still, I can get behind the dog deity idea.

A Gus stand-in
A Gus stand-in

Worst use of a dog. In Hung, the former service dog that Jessica (Anne Heche) adopts is purely a prop, and an ill-used one at that. Jessica brings home the ailing, elderly pooch — who gets no name or gender, as far as I recall– solely to earn points with her children. The dog is seen only lying on its side in the kitchen; it never gets to its feet. In the next episode, the children tells Jessica that “the dog smells.” Sure enough, the vet says the dog is very ill and will need IV fluids to revive it; she suggests putting it out of its misery.  Jessica wants to save the dog for all the wrong reasons: So her kids will continue to admire her. Her husband wants to kill the dog because it’s too expensive to keep it alive (and, of course, because he doesn’t care about it). He wins, the dog dies, and Jessica won’t have sex with her husband. Creepy, unpleasant, yuck.

Update: Alert viewer (and excellent dog trainer) Erica Young informed me that the dog was a female named Doris. I sit corrected.

Most creative use of a dog. On True Blood, Alan Ball’s vampire soap, Sam, the shapeshifting bartender, usually turns into a dog (except when — spoiler alert — he turns into a bird to escape the evil Maryann). And when he’s a dog, he’s an excellent dog, friendly, frisky, fun. And while the idea of going to sleep with a dog and waking up with a man, or vice versa, is disconcerting, I wouldn’t kick either Sam or the dog out of bed.

5 thoughts on “TV Dogs: Props, Gods & Shapeshifters”

  1. I am also a fan of Saving Grace because of Gus, Laura San Giacomo and Holly Hunter 🙂 I never watched Lassie or Rin Tin Tin but I would give at least an honorable mention to the former narcotic detection Belgian Malinois on Southland and his relationship with the crazy wife!

    1. I never watched Southland, but the Belgian Malinois sounds intriguing. I’m confused. Is it a drug sniffing dog or is it the dog of a narcotics detective who got custody from the crazy wife? Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. Nice post. I loved watching Lassie, always wanted her as a dog. Dogs may not be in a lot of television shows, but Hollywood has made a lot of money on dog movies.

    1. Thanks! I wish I could remember where I read it, but there was an article about how dogs in movies that weren’t the stars tended to get killed off — used to show how evil the bad characters were, or how sympathetic the good characters were when they mourned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *