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FOX's HouseBroken Shows the Secret Life of Pets, But For Adults This Time

It's not a coincidence that there's rarely been been a noteworthy and mainstream talking pets film or show for adults. (The kids, of course, have many. Plenty. Maybe too many.) “HouseBroken,” a new series on FOX, enters into the channel’s busy animation roster as if pets talking like adults were a bold and innovative idea, especially as the premise gives voice to the consciences that owners can project on their furry loved ones. But it's always proven to be such an easy, lazy concept, whether the approach is for kids or adults, and "HouseBroken" does little with it aside from giving dogs, cats, pigs, hamsters and more neuroses and collecting them in a combative therapy group. I get that the target audience of 85 million people—the amount of pet owners in US—is enticing, but “HouseBroken” shows just how cloying talking animal stories can be especially when the woof-meow-woof banter comes with an "adult" edge. Created by Clea DuVall, Gabrielle Allan, and Jennifer Crittenden, the series is too predictable and cynical with its lack of imagination, or to be as cute or even self-aware as it thinks (the theme song is barking, which is a fleeting choice of all-out goofiness). And only an exciting voice cast as this one could make such a yawning premise into a true let-down. 

Lisa Kudrow leads an ensemble that would undoubtedly be more fun to see in a stage reading than this more literal presentation. She plays a poodle named Honey who leads group sessions for the pets in the neighborhood, as they gather in Honey's owner's living room and sit around, giving the series a chance for lots of cross-talk and banter. One of the bigger problems of “HouseBroken,” aside from it lacking in surprising comedy, is that it can be annoying with how high-energy it is, with the pet friends whiffing one joke after the next. And then at the same time, the storylines are also not weird enough to really break out of the general premise’s bubble, even if there are sporadic dream sequences (like when Honey dreams of being a mermaid-dog) or random flashbacks. The plotting is based around lightly amusing parts of these different pets (like one pig's ego about being George Clooney’s prized pig), and even the emotional connection becomes a non-factor. 

The casting of "HouseBroken" might sound funny on the outside: co-creator Clea DuVall voices a Corgi that’s the closest the series has to a social justice warrior; Nat Faxon plays a dopey St. Bernard name Chief; Tony Hale is a skittish terrier named Diablo whose owners are divorcing; Jason Mantzoukas is a grimy cat named Lyle; Bresha Webb voices a violent hamster named Nibbles; Sharon Hogan puts her comedic talents to a posh cat named Tabitha; Greta Lee voices a fish named Bubbles who isn’t a part of the group, but like she says among the four episodes provided for critics, she can’t move her bowl. They all try to give spirit to something that smells more and more like a voice-acting paycheck to earn during a pandemic. It almost becomes even more frustrating to recognize the talents, or see them in the IMDb page (Sharon Hogan! Who knew!), and see how they're held back by such lukewarm comedy.  “HouseBroken” doesn’t even go for the full weirdness in the question of “Hey, what if Jason Mantzoukas was a horny cat?” 

What’s so dispiriting about the show is how expected it is, and that it doesn't raise a bar that's purposefully starts low. Maybe in trying to be more "realistic" than a talking pet tome like “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” it mostly focuses on their domestic problems and rarely spices them up with truly bizarre backgrounds, actions, or imaginations. And as they sit around group, it’s just about their inner pet crises, usually involving tired jokes about being horny, or lonely, or accidentally pooping on the floor. The jokes tend to be grounded and predictable, especially when it leads to how big dog Chief is gross and dumb, or how sassy Tabitha is because she's a white fluffy cat with an Eastern European accent. But they remain pets, their stories being more about pet behavior than something relatable, and it all becomes mighty cheesy. "HouseBroken" made me miss the incredibly human fears and feelings of the talking food in the grossly underrated adult animation movie "Sausage Party." It also made me sad for the countless more spirited pilots that are homeless because something like "HouseBroken" is taking up space. 

Sometimes there are throwaway gags with eye-rolling, random pop-culture references like the Fyre Festival or the movie “In Her Shoes.” It's all told with animation style that can best be described as "a show on Fox," which doesn't help make "HouseBroken" feel any less like something that came off a conveyor belt. As the pets talk, sometimes with wisdom their humans could use, you always expect Brian the talking dog from “Family Guy” to suddenly walk in. 

Especially in an age when there’s a surplus of cute (real) animals available for doting and light entertainment on Instagram, why do we need a bizarrely flat show like “HouseBroken”? The series wants to play into that same fascination and that same cuteness with dialogue like “Remember the No Claws clause!” next to more adult gags about dogs eating dog puke. But "HouseBroken" is its own big, unfunny joke, to the point of surreality. 

Four episodes screened for review.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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