Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Is 'Dog with a Blog' Dadaist?

Okay, for those of you who come here for my brilliant and profound considerations of popular culture, which I assume is clearly the main reason people visit this site, then you probably want to sit this one out.* I have no profundity today. Nope. I have no logical thoughts whatsoever. Today's post can literally be summed up by a shot of my face skewed up in confusion because all I have to say is "What. WHAT? Wat."

This deep and meaningful questioning of, well, everything, is because last Friday night, curled up on my very comfortable couch for some post-GREs couch potato-ing, I stumbled across a show that broke me. I mean that very really. I watched this entire episode of what I can only assume is a real show that people really watch and pay for and I feel like something inside me died. That show was Dog with a Blog and I have no idea what happened. But I think I just discovered a secret cache of dadaist philosophy on children's television.

To back up, I have done absolutely no research into this show. I didn't go and watch more episodes to get a better idea of if this particular one was representative of the show as a whole, I'm afraid to find out how long it's been on the air, and frankly the concept of looking it up on IMDB horrifies me, so we're really flying blind here. But this is what happened.

First I was lulled into a false sense of security by finding a rerun of an episode of Gravity Falls playing on the Disney Channel. Gravity Falls is a legitimately good show that I will definitely talk about someday for reals, so my barriers were down. I was enjoying myself. Then the episode ended and the network proceeded on to the next show. That show was Dog with a Blog and I was totally going to turn it off. Only I didn't.

I didn't turn it off because from the first second I genuinely couldn't believe that this was a real show really on television. 

It's like how when I first saw a trailer for Jack and Jill, that disastrously terrible Adam Sandler movie where he played his own twin sister, I was sure it was a prank. A fake trailer. A movie that didn't actually exist because no one is stupid enough to pay for it. Only it is a real movie that really does exist and that you really shouldn't watch, and this show is real too. 

The premise of Dog with a Blog, as far as I can tell which is not very far, is this: there's a dog who can talk. His name is Stan. He is apparently married to another dog and they have two little puppies together. The puppies are really stupid but can also talk. Stan and his dog family live with a human family. This human family does not know that Stan can talk and also that he runs a semi-successful website, with the exception of their teenage daughter, Avery.

I did not gather from this one episode why Stan can talk or if every animal in this world can talk and only Stan went public or if there was magic involved or if Stan is actually an alien... We just have to go with it. Stan is an obnoxious freaking dog that can talk and the teenage daughter is the only one to know. Maybe? At least that's what this episode made it seem like.

She's the only one who knows because literally everyone else in the family is painfully stupid. The parents are the kind of idiots you see most often on kid sitcoms like this, but who seem to be too moronic to actually function in society. I mean, we are told that they hold down jobs, but I do not believe it.

The other children, an older teenage son and a younger preteen daughter, are also stupid, but with slight variations. The son is stupid and obsessed with girls. The daughter is stupid and obsessed with fashion. I hope you're managing to remember all of this riveting character development.

The only member of the family who can tie her own shoelaces seems to be Avery, the daughter who knows about the talking dog, and her life mostly revolves around her friends. Or at least it does in this one episode. Her friends are a sitcom-only group of motley misfits. One is a supervillain-esque inventor who speaks in an affected British accent, one is an angry goth, and one is a sunny airhead whose entire personality appears to be "stupid". Avery meanwhile is very smart and nerdy and "quirky". So it's clear to see why these people are friends.

That's the setup of the show. I think. Stan the dog does things and the family does things and I guess we're supposed to laugh? But personally I spent the entire episode I watched marveling at the sheer dadaist surrealism of the show. You think I'm kidding? I genuinely could use this episode as an example of how the amplification of sitcom tropes creates a story in which humor is abstracted past the point of being funny, the surrealism of the story becomes almost Dali-esque, and NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING ANYMORE.

I meant it when I said that this show broke me.

The episode I watched, which I have not looked up the title for because I don't want to know, had three main storylines. First, Stan the dog tries to teach his puppies how to play pranks on people using a soundboard app on his iPad. Why the dog has an iPad we are not told. Second, Avery discovers that her supervillain friend and her goth friend are dating and worries about group dynamics. Third, the father has an extra ticket to a geology exhibit at the museum he supposedly works at and tries to figure out how to trick his stupid family into going with him.

In the first plotline, which I think is supposed to be funny, the father dog spends the whole episode playing "pranks" on the humans of the house trying to teach them what practical jokes are. So he uses the soundboard app to record them talking and then remix the words to be weird and crazy and "funny". The puppies do not understand until they finally do and prank their father. The end of this horrible horrible storyline. 

It's horrible, for the record, because the talking dogs are incredibly obnoxious. Stan is smug and downright smarmy, like a fedora-bro you just want to punch, while the puppies are so "cute" it makes you want to hurl. They call him "dada". Ugh. If only that were a reference to dadaism and Russian futurism. If only...

The Avery plotline is like a whole season worth of drama on another show piled into one twenty minute episode. First the boy and girl reveal that they are dating and that they're worried it will hurt group dynamics. Then they date and do hurt group dynamics. Then they break up. Then their two other friends decide to get them back together because it was sad that they broke up. 

But they're too stubborn to apologize to each other. Then everyone is transported to a medieval faire. Then the friends use the soundboard app and Stan the magical dog to trick their buddies into apologizing and reconciling. Then the two lovers kiss. While wearing gigantic costume masks that block their faces. One of them is a dragon and the other is a knight. What.

The family plotline has the father announcing his extra ticket and his wife and two children doing everything possible to get out of going. They escalate their avoidance tactics until the father decides to tell them that it's going to be a big "rock show" and "the stones" will be there. The whole family thinks that he is talking about the Rolling Stones because they are stupid and very proud of how stupid they are, and then they go to the museum and are very unhappy. The end.

I feel like this does not fully do justice to the confusion of actually watching the show, though. I'm not sure how to fix that.

Because, really, I'm not sure anything can compare to the sheer terror and confusion that raced through my mind when it finally sunk in that, yes, this is a real show. Real people made this show. Real people write episodes of this show. Presumably real people watch and enjoy this show. And I had never heard of it before in my life.

I'm just... this seems like the kind of thing I should know about. For science.

And I'm not kidding when I say that the only thing I could think of while watching this was that it was a kind of dadaist experiment in the abstraction of humor. For those unfamiliar with dadaism (which is completely reasonable because you can live a long and happy life without knowing about dadaism, trust me), dadaism was a European avant-garde movement in the early twentieth century. It became incredibly influential in the art scene and helped create the surrealism movement, the pop art movement, and a lot of other cool stuff.

Dadaism, at its heart, is a leftist rebellion against war and bourgeois capitalist values. The dadaists held firmly that "logic" and "reason" were tools of the bourgeois capitalist society that they used to bring about war. As such, the dadaists embraced chaos and irrationality and not making much sense. They called themselves not an art movement, but an anti-art movement, committed to breaking down colonialist, racist, and capitalist structures by confusing people into thinking for themselves. 
Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of the First World War. This international movement was begun by a group of artists and poets associated with the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara's and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words "da, da," meaning "yes, yes" in the Romanian language. Another theory says that the name "Dada" came during a meeting of the group when a paper knife stuck into a French-German dictionary happened to point to 'dada', a French word for 'hobbyhorse'.
- from The Language of Art Knowledge by Dona Budd 
Dadaism was intended to offend people out of complacency. It wasn't supposed to be beautiful or good or pleasant, it was meant to be shocking and ugly and harsh. So, yeah, I think Dog with a Blog is kind of dadaist. A little bit.

Not so much because it's horrific and it offends my senses, though it kind of does, but more because I feel like it does to sitcom humor what dadaism sought to do to fine art. It abstracts it past the point of meaning and in so doing makes clear the underlying absurdities we have been lulled into accepting. Dog with a Blog feels aggressively unfunny. Each sitcom cliche unfolds with more absurdity than the last. The laugh track doesn't so much feel out of place as it does atonal and out of sync. Honestly probably the closest thing I can compare it to is David Lynch's Rabbits

Word of advice, don't google that unless you're ready for some very unsettling dreams tonight.

Anyway, I'm not saying that Dog with a Blog is actually dadaist. That seems probably unlikely, if for no other reason than because it's on the Disney Channel and that goes against everything dadaism stands for. But I do think that the show is aggressively weird and not very funny in a way that seems maybe intentional? Or at the very least not being guarded against.

And it seems to me like this sort of absurd abstraction is happening a lot in children's media right now. Not the cool surrealism of Adventure Time and Steven Universe and Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall and Bee and Puppycat and all that, but the distressing slide into madness started by Teletubbies and apparently continued with Dog with a Blog. I mean the way that it almost feels like network executives are doing madlibs to come up with shows now. 

Then again, maybe it's an age thing. I distinctly recall loving Ghostwriter, and the premise there was pretty absurd itself. Let's not even get started on Wishbone, which featured a Jack Russell Terrier playing the lead in classical literature reenactments. Or what about Square One? It was a math show about spies. I think.

The point is, I don't think I have a point. Maybe I'm just too old to really appreciate Dog with a Blog. Maybe I'm too cynical and have lost my childish wonder. Maybe it's all of that and also none at the same time. Or maybe Dog with a Blog secretly really is a dadaist children's show, intent on disrupting children into seeing the horrors that surround them.

I'm honestly not sure which one of those options frightens me the most.

*Check back this afternoon for an intellectually worthwhile recap the most recent Hannibal, courtesy of Kyla Furey, our resident Hannibal expert.


  1. Square One and Wishbone and Ghostwriter were educational. I think they're ok to stay.

  2. ~searches desperately for positives based on screencaps~
    At least the tween girls have different body types and skin tones. I can only hope the curly-haired Latina is not fatshamed.

    And that her culture is not diluted to a few token Spanish words per episode and 'spicy' or 'gossipy' quips like: 'that cute boy is muy caliente. I wish we could do the, how you say, hooking up?'

    I also hope the blonde girl doesn't spent all her time fretting about wanting more curves or a bigger bust.

    Actually I hope NONE of the girls spend days/weeks/months worrying she's ugly or dumb and will never find love or confidence until her (always hetero) crush says she's cute.

    Then her insecurities vanish, no deep analysis about why she had low self-worth or body issues, we can all go home happy.

    Because honestly it sends terrible messages to women, particular young/tween girls when media re-inforces the idea they only matter if Mr. Wonderful approves of their looks. And that all their esteem struggles are linked to romance woes which can be 100% solved with a kiss.

    1. I actually didn't get that she was Latina from the episode she was in at all. Which doesn't really bode well, unfortunately.

      But, plus side, no signs of blonde girl caring about her figure at all. Seemed mostly a non-issue.

      Yeah, it's so frustrating when media for this very precarious age group maximizes harmful tropes about women and our insecurities. I feel like it would be incredibly helpful if there were a rating system that took this into account. Like, Rated T for toxic body image issues.

  3. *I should have noted that the standard sitcom tendencies of showing only hetero romance as accepted ways for girls and boys to feel/express affection contributes to LGBTA erasure in media.

    And that it's even worse when such shows/media are aimed at youth demographics. Sorry I can't edit posts.

    But I agree w/your previous posts and analysis that Steven Universe is wonderful. ^__^

    1. Steven Universe is fantastic. I need more of it in my life.

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