The underdog is by definition the least estimated of us all, but when you’re the family underdog, then that’s a perfect storm of misery from which there is no respite.
There’s a unique dynamic in the families of underdogs that not only forces the poor bastard to suffer privation and abuse at the hands of his loved ones, but also grants him a unique type of protection from the outside world.
The idea is: he’s not your dog, don’t you touch him.
I had a chance to sit down with Joel Thomas Hynes, star of the CBC smash comedy, Little Dog, before it goes into its second season to talk a little bit about this notion.
“There’re certain families like this,” Hynes tells me. “They get involved, they confront – they speak. Most families, like where I come from, when the first sign of confrontation appears, they go silent. They drop out and go in for six months. They don’t talk or challenge each other. The family in Little Dog communicates with each other – however poorly that may be. At least they’re pushing forward as a family, no matter how dysfunctional they are. There’s an implied willingness to love, ultimately.”
So, he’s a piece of s**t. But he’s our piece of shit and no-one else gets to tell you that because you’re our family, I offered. Joel and I had a laugh at this.
“Yeah, exactly.” Joel said.
The underdog is Joel’s character, Tommy. Even when Tommy wins, he loses. His family is there to pick up the pieces of his crushing loss so they can clearly throw them at him. But the old-world value of suffering for the good of the soul is very prevalent in this dynamic. Set in Newfoundland, a Celtic child of the old world, this series dutifully pays homage to this ideal as we follow Tommy and the Ross family’s adventures.
Tommy Ross has a big chance at finally making a comeback and when we last left him at the end of Season One, he had to throw the fight so that local thugmaster, Tucker, can make a killing. Of course, Tommy wins the fight, screws over Tucker but his family, who bet against him to win, lose their house in the failed wager.
Newfoundland’s a tough place to grow up. Isolated from the Canadian mainland; it’s an island that holds a series of communities of families. Everyone either knows you, or has at least heard of you. So, there’s a shared awareness of each other at the near level of family intimacy. If you ever think of making it big or successful, it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows who you are and where you come from that’s just that, and in this case, Tommy’s chance to make it big has just shattered in front of him … and his loving family and community.
“I’m always careful when I make statements about Newfoundland values. But it can be really tough, for say, an athlete in Newfoundland, who rises to the top or makes good in their sport, like hockey or whatever, puts the work in, but then it backfires because suddenly you’ve altered this perception of yourself. Your success exposes somebody else’s need for growth and you know, sometimes the hometown crowd don’t got no respect.”
I had to pause at this because this was not only insightful, but it’s the nature of the family underdog. The family is the hometown crowd and they certainly don’t have any respect for the kid who was the youngest, or the dreamer or the one who had talent. It’s more than just a lack of respect though, it’s the idea of not letting that person’s growth get in the way of the family’s own sense of inferiority.
“Do you know the old joke about the lobster pot?” Joel asks me.
“Crabs in the bucket?” I venture.
Joel looks at me knowingly. “Ah, you got the same one. “
I was born in a little Welsh-English town. Everyone knows everyone. It’s a small-town mentality to pull someone down before they see a modicum of success that outstrips your own. Tommy’s history with his family has definitely been established with the first season.
“Yeah – we are definitely playing with these themes in the show.” Joel ventures. “Tommy Ross’s family and his so-called fans will go at it and let him know how special he’s not – even though he’s the one offering them an identity. So, I’d say if you care to explore that further, you could say it matters to artists too.”
But there has to be some sort of redemption for the underdog. There are hints of this in the second season of Little Dog.
“There’s a different type of winning for Tommy.” Joe says. “We see a set-up in the last episode of the first season. Pamela, Tommy’s ex-girlfriend, has a little boy. He comes into play in Tommy’s life in a major way. He has an opportunity to step up and perhaps become a better human. We explore themes of fatherhood, sons, and delve deeper into Tommy’s relationship with his father – as dysfunctional as that was. He raised and trained him from jail. There’re other things too – an unexpected wedding, a lot of dirty boxing, a blood-feud that goes huge and we dig into these characters in a way that the first season couldn’t let us because we were establishing so much narrative. But we get to know people and new characters and in short, there’s the need for a man to emancipate from his family while at the same time, seeking their approval. I mean, he wants to cut them loose, but he also wants the recognition from them for cutting them loose!”
That’s winning for the underdog.
The underdog looks to his family for love and acceptance but he knows, at some time, he has to get on top. Even if it’s just once – that’s all he needs.
Little Dog is distributed by both CBC and ITV. Season Two premiers Thursday, Jan. 18, at 9:30pm/10pm NT .