Back in 2007, “Tillman the Skateboarding Dog” starred in a series of popular YouTube videos, as well as an iPhone ad. His tricks on skate-, snow-, and surfboards established this English Bulldog as “the most popular dog in the United States” (at least according to the opening narration of Tillman’s TV show). Yes, beginning in 2012, the Hallmark Channel featured him in the reality show Who Let the Dogs Out, sponsored by the dog food brand owned by actor Dick Van Patten. The second season premiere on 1 February features the same product placement-packed road trips as the first, and also continues to skew heavily “cute” even when exploring more serious subjects. This makes for some tonal confusion: the plight of wounded warriors clashes with the fun of an internet sensation not far removed from the water-skiing squirrel.
Still, it’s hard to fault this daytime show for being cute, especially when its premise is to show dogs on bicycles and skateboards. And so, as the first two episodes of the new season follow Tillman as he becomes an honorary member of the United States Marine Corps at the annual Sky Ball, a fundraising event for the US Military, we aren’t surprised by some appealing bits (like seeing Tillman filling out his “dress blues” uniform) or even by claims for the stunt’s appropriateness (the Marine mascot is a bulldog named “Chesty”). But it’s not long before the focus shifts from kid-friendly cartoonishness to daunting shots of military amputees and prosthetic limbs.
The first few minutes set up the mission of Tillman’s entourage, as they help to promote the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument (at the time, under construction). The show heads to DC as the monument’s sponsor, North Carolina Congressman Walter B. Jones, signs off on the project and the initial sculpting of the bronze monument begins. When the team returns to California to drive the monument’s replica float in the Rose Bowl Parade, the show resorts to familiar reality TV tropes, goofy music and staged hijinks. Before long, a Marine Corps instructor is running the canine and human cast through mock basic training and Tillman is demonstrating his skateboarding skills at the Los Angeles Airport.
This strange juxtaposition of tones continues in the second episode as Who Let the Dogs Out honors the German Shepherd mix Lucca, who lost a leg while on a bomb-sniffing mission in Afghanistan. The show briefly chronicles her career and retirement with the family of one of her trainers and then details the contributions of a World War I lifesaving dog named “Sergeant Stubby.” After these respectful tributes, narrator John Fulton attempts to lead a reluctant group of high school ROTC cadets in singing a song he wrote about how Sgt. Stubby was “a real cute puppy,” clumsily inverting the previous respectful mood.
These abrupt changes in focus and attitude make it difficult to get a bead on how seriously the cast and crew of Who Let the Dogs Out take the contributions of these “hero dogs.” Their dedication to the Monument project and their respect for the US Military are clear, but jokes about Tillman’s dislike of bagpipe music and clips of his admittedly adorable skateboarding are less “comic relief” than semi-jarring, ill-fitting asides when interspersed with reverent scenes of real military amputees, electric wheelchairs, and exoskeletons at Sky Ball.
If there wasn’t enough going on already, Gary Sinise is interviewed (and performs with his Lt. Dan Band) at the same event. Later, Dick and Jimmy Van Patten team up with a wild-looking Charlie Sheen for a Military Working Dog Teams National Monument PSA. Once these additional ingredients are added, the season premiere (even as a two-parter) becomes overloaded and convoluted.
The heart of Who Let the Dogs Out is in the right place, even if the result is awkward and sometimes uncomfortable. Tillman is the first dog to become an honorary Private First Class in the United States Marine Corps and is genuinely charming, in his bulldoggy way. But as the show seems committed to the idea that he and his fellow working dogs are heroes, we might hope that it finds a way to present this idea more consistently.