The Surprisingly Complex Pleasures of Puppy Bowl XI

And, we’re back!  I know it’s been several weeks since I released an actual post to this blog, but I was busy doing my work on Metathesis, as well as my Prospectus (the next draft of which is due at the end of this week), but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the swing of things.  And what better way to get back into my queer groove than by blogging about the ironic humour of my favourite January sporting event, the Puppy Bowl.

While over 100 million Americans were tuning into the Super Bowl, I was tuning in to what is, in my opinion, the real highlight of the January sports season, Animal Planet’s “The Puppy Bowl.”  Now, I know it might seem counterintuitive to suggest that a puff-ball special about a bunch of puppies running helter-skelter all over a make-believe stadium, with a Tweeting cockatiel and hamsters in a plane and on an exercise wheel, would have anything significant to say or a terribly complex way in which to say it.  And normally, I think you would be right.  This year, however, the annual special seemed significantly more self-aware than usual, a particularly noteworthy achievement for a mock sport event hosted on one of the most hopelessly bizarre of the plethora of branded cable networks.

I think my Mom (always a source of unexpected sagacity) said it best when she noted that the special (which she distinguished from Hallmark’s competing Kitten Bowl), did not take itself too seriously.  As she put it, we as the audience are always in on the joke with the Puppy Bowl.  And I would agree.  Even though it is as glutted with advertisements as the Super Bowl, I can’t help but chuckle a little at the absurdness of it all, and I think that the show wants me to do so.  After all, how seriously can you take a carpet cleaner ad when it’s being used to clean up fake turf in a fake stadium in a Super Bowl played by puppies?

This is not to suggest, however, that the Puppy Bowl doesn’t have its moments of seriousness, both implicitly and explicitly.  Increasingly, many of the puppy players are mixed breeds, a tactical move no doubt designed to remind potential dog owners that buying exclusively pure-bred pups from breeders leaves many, many shelter dogs unadopted, living out their lives in already-overcrowded shelters and rescue homes.  Just as importantly, the show frequently highlights the stories of the puppies as they have made their way to the Puppy Bowl.  Many of these puppies are indeed the products of shelters and abandonment, a sobering reminder of the alleged expendability of animal life and an urgent call for us to do better by our canine compatriots.

What really surprised me, however, was the way in which the show toggled between the serious and sentimental to the self-reflexive.  One of the key changes this year was the introduction of Henri the Existential Cat to the halftime show, which has in previous years mostly consisted of kittens (often reluctantly) playing with confetti and other toys.  Henri’s laconic (and entirely French) commentary on the utter banality and absurdity of sporting events is a cunning swipe not only at the Super Bowl–which is, let’s face it, one of the most hysterically and hyperbolically banal and absurd mass culture events in all of the blessed USA–but also at a culture that would produce a highly-popular television special featuring dogs playing a very fast-and-loose version of football.  We are simultaneously invited to have fun and to laugh at the antics of the puppies (which are, if I do say so myself, almost TOO cute) and to laugh at ourselves for laughing at them.  This is postmodern irony at its finest, made all the sweeter and rich due to its completely unexpected location.

Of course, all of this doesn’t negate the fact that the Puppy Bowl, and Animal Planet as a whole, remains thoroughly human in its outlook.  How could we expect anything else from a network whose tagline is still “Surprisingly Human”?  Still, we can’t entirely dismiss “Puppy Bowl” as mindless entertainment, especially now that is has begun to appeal to the more complex thinkers among us.  It may be a surprisingly human enterprise, but it also happens to be a surprisingly complicated, one might even say contradictory, one.  What’s more, we shouldn’t let its seeming simplicity blind us to the myriad ways it calls on us to spectators to engage in the mass cultural products with which we constantly engage.

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