"Pound Puppies": Cute Enough to Eat All Up
Pound Puppies is another one of Hasbro/The Hub’s relaunches of a classic toyetic title from the 1980s, right alongside its phenomenally successful My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The show suggests two things. First, that its stablemate’s great success is no accident: someone, somewhere, seems to be doing a very good job ensuring that these shows are genuinely entertaining and not just crass cash-ins. Second, it suggests that there is very little justice in the world. If there were, Pound Puppies would be at least as much of a wild, breakout hit as My Little Pony.
I never watched the original 1980s cartoon, so I’ll refrain from making invidious comparisons between the old and new incarnations. Suffice it to say that the new Pound Puppies takes a premise that could have been very bland and very saccharine and makes it smart and jazzy, but without souring the concept with a lot of too-much-cleverness or losing its essential sweetness. The “Pound Puppies” of the title are an international organization of dogs working hard to match ownerless puppies with perfect owners. The show’s protagonists are a small team working from inside a city pound. The team leader, Lucky, is a smart, raffish idealist who won’t let his essential nobility stop him from dealing from the bottom of the deck when he has to, and he oversees a motley group of equally good-hearted (but slightly shady) assistants: the tech-minded Dachshund, Strudel; the tough-but-fair-minded Boxer, Cookie; the sneaky, stick-pawed Chihuahua, Squirt; and, not least, the sweetly stupid Sheepdog, Niblet. Each week, a new puppy needing help drops into their laps, and they will fight heaven and earth (and sometimes each other) to get them what they need.
It sounds like it could be repetitive, and over time it might be. But the five episodes collected on Pound Puppies: Homeward Pound provide a nice cross-section of problems for our heroes. The classic “find a home for a stray” episode is “Quintuplets,” in which Lucky heroically (but rather thoughtlessly) promises to find a home for five sibling puppies inside of twenty-four hours, even though the puppies refuse to be split up between different homes. Headaches and chaos ensue as each possible solution falls apart: the car dealer who advertises himself with quintuplet sets of animal mascots turns out to be running a bad environment, and the dogs make a shambles of a basketball game when they try placing them as mascots with a basketball team. The solution, when it comes, is very tidy, but it is nicely (and comically) set up when the dogs keep running into a kid who loves the puppies–but seems to love a different puppy each time they meet up with him. It’s an episode that does everything right, from ingenious slapstick bits (as at the basketball arena, where the losing team gamely turns chaos into an excuse for Harlem Globetrotter antics) to a nice little moral at the end, where Lucky reminds the puppies that one day they might want to go their separate ways–and that it will be alright if they do.
The formula gets two interesting twists in “Homeward Pound” and “Zoltron.” In the former, Squirt and Niblet get carried off in a cargo plane, and Lucky has to enlist the aid of the Pound Puppies’ Canadian branch to rescue them. In “Zoltron,” it’s a dog from outer space (or is he just so terrified by being lost that he’s invented a fantastical backstory for himself?) who needs to be reunited with his extraterrestrial owners.
But it will also step away from the formula. In “My Fair Rebound” the dogs have to train Niblet’s sister to be a show dog when her deeply insecure owner lets herself be bullied into entering the puppy into a “Best in Show” competition. In “K-9 Kid,” the team similarly decides to train a puppy who wants to be a police dog.
Like My Little Pony, Pound Puppies tries to instill a little moral learning for the kiddies, and like My Little Pony it does so by showing rather than telling, and by dampening the sugar with a generous dollop of vinegar. “Homeward Pound,” for instance, winds up pitting Niblet and Squirt against each other as the latter insistently keeps leading the lost pair in the wrong direction; but the moral (that bull-headedness and smug self-assurance are not the same as knowledge and wisdom) emerges piece-by-piece and with a lot of winning comedy along the way. “My Fair Rebound,” unsurprisingly, comes down on the side of affection and play, but it also more subtly shows that the spoiled and scatterbrained puppy has benefited by having a little discipline added to her life. “Quintuplets” is the most direct in stating a moral, but it’s a far-gazing moral about what people ultimately need and want, and about being willing to accept what now seems bitter because one day it won’t be so bad.
The show is also very good at keeping the protagonists interesting and the antagonists sympathetic. The heroes will say sharp things to each other, and there are some fun running battles between Squirt (who comes off as a not-quite-reformed criminal) and his comrades; these dogs nip at each other. The humans–and not just the boys and girls who get puppies–also come off well. There are running plot elements that strongly suggest Stalag 17 or Hogan’s Heroes: the dogs literally work underground with a lot of high-tech equipment, under the uncomprehending gaze of a bespectacled, balding bureaucrat (a near double of Colonel Klink) and a sweetly oafish security guard (the Sergeant Schultz stand-in). But these are not bad people, and even Mr. McLeish, the pound overseer who is none too fond of dogs, will try arguing his mother out of training her puppy, because she and the yappy dog get along so famously just the way they are. The closest thing we get to a “bad guy” is the sniffy show dog Sterling Von Oxnard in “My Fair Rebound,” who will blatantly cheat in order to win a competition, but even he is shown to act out of fear and insecurity rather than malice.
Moment by moment, the series is sustained by strong but seemingly offhand writing expertly delivered by a skilled cast. This is not a show whose deep and winning humor can be conveyed by repeating some of its jokes; there really aren’t any. But almost every line can draw a smile or even a laugh, just because they are fun and delivered with such energy. A huge amount of the credit has to go to the regular cast. Eric McCormack probably has the hardest job as Lucky, as he has to be wise, tolerant, smart and noble without coming across as a smug, bossy pedagogue; he executes this task by giving Lucky something like Denis Leary’s biting intelligence but without the bitter edge. Yvette Nicole Brown as Cookie, Michael Rapaport as Squirt, and Alanna Ubach as Strudel lend able support. The best of the regular cast is probably John DiMaggio as Niblet: he’s like Bender after being given a moral upgrade but having had too many of his vital CPU bits removed. Rene Auberjonois does a stellar job as the Klink-like McLeish, and has even nailed Werner Klemperer’s singsong patter. Each episode typically comes with a couple of celebrity voices, but these guests bury themselves nicely in their roles, so that even when you recognize the voices (which include Clancy Brown, George Takei, French Stewart, Dave Thomas, Dave Foley, Katherine Helmond, and Betty White on this set) they will be perfectly in character.
The show is also tremendously attractive to look at, with stylized but strong designs. The backgrounds and props have a flattened, mid-century aesthetic that suggests something Mary Blair might have come up with, but without looking like a cheap rip-off of her work. The characters also have a storybook feel to them, with simple designs that let them move expressively if none too exuberantly. The dogs are also very doggy in their acting; when a puppy exclaims “Everything is great great great I’m the most luckiest dog ever!” she won’t just say it, she’ll bound around the other characters in great, looping circles, hitting the ground on each stressed syllable.
Pound Puppies is so good, at both the task it sets itself and what it realizes along the way, that it is nearly flawless. It may also the best show of its kind–something that can appeal strongly to kids and grown-ups alike for all the same reasons–since The Powerpuff Girls went off the air.