The dogs of New York City, if the new reality show Dog Days (Animal Planet, Monday, 10 p.m. ET) can be trusted, are either docile lapdogs or nearly wolves. Their owners show more range, though many are in their 20s with blond hair. Together, they cavort in uptown parks, among yellow cabs, and in the shade of tall-enough buildings (Empire State, Flatiron)—a jumble of icons that distracts viewers from the memory of those other towers, which now must be cast from our minds. Especially while we watch a happy show about dogs.
Each Dog Days cast member plays a role in a straight-up allegory that is spelled out in the opening credits. Foremost among them are Anne, "the artist," with her dog Paquita, "the muse"; and Karyn, "the pushover," with her dog Cyrus, "the bully." Anne and Karyn seem superficially similar: golden, fresh-faced free spirits. Later we learn that Anne is domineering and defensive, while Karyn is graceful and sly. Their pets have comparably contrasting characters: Paquita is a cosseted golden pit bull. When her honor is questioned, Anne calls her harassers "breedists." ("Are you racists, too?" she adds, for bite.) As Karyn puts it, "Paquita definitely can snap at other people and get really angry. Anne has that potential as well."
Cyrus is an English bulldog, with the breed's ludicrously alluring under-bite and slobber. He roots and squirms all day, unless he's been bitten by Paquita (whom Anne maintains is harmless); then he lays low. He gobbles garbage, shoes, a coat hanger. His boorishness and his screw-everything style enchant Karyn, a precious Southern belle. "He's the Stanley Kowalski of dogs," she tells the camera. Big, muscly, hunky, sloppy, dangerous, "but sensitive," Karyn pleads. "She likes him being the ill-mannered brute that he is," Anne observes. Right on.
What more do you need from a reality show? Archetypal characters, lust, tension between women, madcapness, minor deceptions, flashes of a city in action. And I haven't even mentioned the rest of the company: Jill, in cheerful search of a boyfriend, with her dog Oliver as a magnet; Eddie, a model, who cherishes only his pup Joey and photos of himself; Ajile, "the party girl" whose dog's absurd name—Prada—might distract viewers from her enthusiasm and her sweetness; Gary, a rambling man who divides his time between his bookmaker and his dying dog, Astro, out of whose fur he is making a hat.
Dog Days also features Stephan and Lori, a nifty couple who have to face their own shame when their mean dog Max mixes it up at the dog run; Tatiana, an aging beauty, happy in the Zsa-Zsa role, who runs a B & B for palm-sized doggies like her own, Mishka and Sasha; Rick, the perceptive but irritable interior designer, and Gomez, his kinky associate (who sniffs out rooms for feng shui).
The Dog Days producers come up with comic captions to enliven the show and stunts to make things happen— a dog birthday, a dog psychic, a tour of high-end dog hotels (The Ritz-Canine, etc.)—but things happen pretty well on their own. Anne reveals her temperament, for instance, on a daily walk with her pit bull in the West Village. Off her leash, Paquita lunges for a cat, picking it up with her teeth and hurling it to the ground. Anne responds by running after Paquita and elaborately comforting her—she's ingested cat fur, poor thing—before seeking out the cat to look for injuries. Earlier on the show, Lori hazarded a theory of dog ownership and liability ("It's just like raising a kid. If he fights with other kids, that's your fault. Right?"); such logic has no hold on Anne.
That's good, because in this theme Dog Days finds its moral crux, and in Anne the show gets a charismatic villain. She's game, gorgeous, and confident, but she intends only to protect her own rights and those of her bellicose surrogate; she doesn't want to cooperate in the urban jungle. What's more, at her expensive birthday party for Paquita she insists that each guest concoct a memory, poem, or song (song?!) about the guest of honor—a tall order when the honoree is a friend and beyond the pale when she's a pit bull who bites. Amazingly, some guests comply. Anne is a narcissist with power, a wonder onscreen, if not in life.
In the meantime, Karyn moons over what she calls Cyrus' "deviancy"—"no one likes him on the playground"—while she fights all efforts by trainers to turn him into a gentleman. How is this different from Anne's aggressive duet with Paquita? I may simply prefer Karyn's delicate desire, but what's going on between her and her bully seems to be a simple romance. Karyn keeps Cyrus' mischief—which, to be clear, is not violence—to herself; she doesn't let him off a leash in public without explicit permission.
It's no accident that I'm talking about this show as if it's art, life—something with gravity. It is. Dog Days, yet another overthought reality show, is only two episodes in, but I can't get the beastly program out of my mind. Dog Days is muscly, hunky, sloppy—but sensitive. Or maybe you just don't understand him like I do.