Dogs in Space

4 out of 5

Created by: Jeremiah Cortez

covers season 1

I know: the excessive (and obvious) dog puns, and the milquetoast re-rendering of Star Trek plots, and that opening pop song with witty title cards for our anthropomorphic dog cast… you’re likely to either click out of this streaming entry in disappointment at it crossing the line from distraction to dumb, or grit your teeth and roll your eyes in expectation of putting up with it alongside more eager kid viewers you’re parenting.

I was close to the former. I just wanted some outer space hijinx starring dogs that was goofy but enjoyable, and I felt like I was getting a version of that very much aimed not towards an all-ages crowd, but something younger than that. Can’t fault the show, but can’t expect me to hang around.

…But I did. Because there were some curiosities. For as softballed as some of the puns were – basically mining expected humor about how dogs like to chase things and chew on toys, whoopee – there also seemed to be a handful of things tossed in there that the writers and directors weren’t winking at the camera about, or telegraphing. Some funny things, yes, but also story beats – the way the background is delivered, regarding these science-evolved dogs being sent into space by their human owners to find a replacement planet for the one those silly bi-peds have ravaged – isn’t subtle, but it’s also not done in a typical hand-holding bit of cartoon exposition. The same goes true for the way episodes are structured, which veer impressively away from standard bottle stuff and moralizing to turn the motley crew types – the doofy leader, the wild card, the lazy one, etc. – into more realized characters, while still playing into episodic topics and reliable behaviors. And as the show continues, the strength and confidence in this blending – the faith in viewers to deal with that – grows, allowing the humor to grow with it, earning some smile-inducing, laugh-out-loud stuff, alongside – gasp! – an actually interesting plot as well!

Dogs in Space starts with the basic premise mentioned above, and focuses on the crew of the M-Bark, one such crew of many dispatched from larger parent ship Pluto. While some episodes are focused around one particular planet or another, and why or why not it’s suited for humans – until something sends the crew on their way, in search of another planet – an over-arching tale emerges about what it means that the humans sent the dogs out on what’s now a several year journey, and how that journey can take a toll on even the most loyal of dogs. Yeah, that’s right, a show with an episode where everyone gets morphed into puppies, or that riffs for twenty minutes on an alien with bad breath, actually has an emotional hook that gets you invested.

The animation serving this is simple, and bright, and bubbly, but it’s then used to lean into a lot of creativity concerning the various dog breeds, and the alien races with which they interact – it turns out to give the Dogs in Space team a lot of leeway in crafting some very exciting stuff that would probably be too scary or maybe too violent if done in a more dynamic style, and to be able to juggle that with chuckly visual gags and well-timed slapstick.

And I know I also stuck in there because of the actors. While I wouldn’t have pegged Haley Joel Osment as an animation guy – and looking at his resume, I note I’ve been completely unaware that he’s been voicing Kingdom Hearts characters for years, so all due deference to those already aware of Osment’s skills in this regard – his approach to M-Bark captain Garbage (another point scored, because that’s a great dog name) is excellent, nailing the character’s naivety and sweetness without it passing a point-of-no-return in dumbness. His earnestness in his voice makes him unrecognizable to the actor I’ve been enjoying in recent shows like Future Man. Sarah Chalke gets a lot of deserved (animated) screen time as Stella, the upwardly mobile tactics officer on M-Bark, and Debra Wilson absolutely owns the role of Kira – a stranded dog the crew rescues – a difficult part that requires flipping back and forth between something sympathetic and antagonistic, and Wilson’s take on that never cheapens the character’s arc. And Chris Parnell, who makes any damn animated series he’s in at least worth checking out. (His kleptomaniac Ed also happens to be hilarious, though.)

While the show still isn’t wholly without concessions towards a younger demographic, and has a tendency to drive some less-than-funny jokes into the ground as a result, I’d still encourage anyone who has an itchy finger over the ‘close’ button during the first episode to hang in there. Even as soon as the second episode, I felt like I was starting to see more of the for which tone Dogs in Space’s creators were aiming, and soon after that I was hooked, binging the whole thing, and sincerely saddened when there was no more. (Meaning I hope my eager viewership encourages Netflix to greenlit at least one more go-around…)