There are the people who watch the Super Bowl in its entirety. There are the people who claim, as though it were somehow nobler, to watch the Super Bowl "only for the commercials." Then, there are the people who eschew football altogether and watch two hours of puppies stumbling adorably around a miniature football field.
These are the viewers of Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl, and there are more of them than you'd think. Last year, Puppy Bowl attracted 10.4 million viewers, making it the most watched cable broadcast of the night, excluding sports. The year before, more than 13 million people tuned in. And if numbers alone don't spell cultural relevance, one might note that in 2013, Michelle Obama taped a Puppy Bowl "training camp" on the White House lawn, with First Dogs Sunny and Bo leading the pack to promote the "Let's Move!" initiative.
If the Super Bowl offers smashmouth action and proto-regional rivalries played out between Budweiser commercials, Puppy Bowl offers the opposite: a non-breed-specific collective opportunity for cooing at baby animals yet to master gross motor control. The show, after all, isn't really about determining a winner. The two teams, Ruff and Fluff, are notional and appear to exist more for the sake of dressing up 12-24 week old puppies in bandanas. In the world of Puppy Bowl XII, the ref's assistant is a skunk and the human-interest segments, which aren't exactly human, are called "Pup Close and Personal." The social media lackey is a bird – yes, there is tweeting and Tweeting – named Meep, and the cheerleaders, for lack of hands, ruffle their chicken feathers.
Altogether, what emerges is something like a zoo of innocuous puns. A wholly unscientific survey of viewers with an insufficient sample size reveals that the typical response to watching the show is not, as in the NFL version, hooting or berating the ref but feeling the soft thump of a heart softened to the texture of queso dip.
I know, because I am at the taping of Puppy Bowl XII in New York City. Upon arriving at the television studio, the first woman I meet is exiting a toilet stall with a maybe-sheepdog that resembles a cute chenille ottoman. "He wouldn't stay out there without me," she says, pointing to the door. "But don't worry. He didn't go in there. Just me." I am not worried. It is difficult to worry about anything when you are on the set of Puppy Bowl XII. Outside the bathroom, a woman leaping before a camera proclaims, "This is the best day of my life!"
Around the corner, the players wait for their turn on the field. Animal Planet has recruited more than 80 puppies from 44 shelters and rescues around the country. (Raising awareness about pet adoption is a big part of the show). They are mutts and Australian cattle dogs and Pomeranians and schnoodles, and they are the stars of the show. They have names like stars, too: Optimus Prime, Jackie O', Andy Cohen. Their chaperones stand around petting their charges and complimenting the other pups. They talk breeds and elaborate on the "big" personalities of the dogs. One woman introduces three dogs in her care.
"This is Jimmy," she says, petting a feathery black, white and brown confection, "and his two girlfriends. He's a player."
Jimmy's girlfriends are named Cornbread and Miss Sassy. If they have a problem with their current arrangement, they're not showing it today. Next, I meet a very popular dog in the waiting room, Samoa, who was recently adopted with his sister Cream Puff by a husband and wife. The siblings were already home when it was announced that they'd made the cut for Puppy Bowl XII, so the couple took the day off from work to allow their new family members a shot at network television debuts. Cream Puff and Samoa are lookers, but as anyone in the studio could tell you, stars are not constituted by aesthetics alone.
"I think they're looking for someone playful," a woman in a shelter T-shirt confides. She has nothing to worry about. Her pup can rear up on its hind legs like a horse and run so fast he flips himself. Yet the truth is, there's no discernible competitiveness in the room. Puppy Bowl is not a pageant, and the dogs mostly play gently or nap. Meanwhile, though there are no divas on set, there is plentiful star treatment from the humans.
Here, in the Puppy Bowl labor economy, specialization is the order of the day. There are people who hold boards against the playing field edges, so excited puppies don't go flying offstage. In the waiting area, a man whose primary job responsibility appears to be poop surveillance rushes in when the stars pop a squat. Through a door, where a room has been designated for canine solo shots, two staffers shake squeaking plush toys overhead and make high-pitched noises to attract the puppy's attention toward the camera lens. Many shelter people sit in a horseshoe around the room, whispering praise and rubbing ears like talismans.
"And my mom asks why I haven't had children yet!" a woman says nearby. Her audience nods knowingly.
Abruptly, a number of humans crowd around a television screen displaying the action on the football field down the hall, where the show is being taped. The shelter people aren't allowed on set, but they can view the field on a TV monitor as they wait. The commotion has been occasioned by the revelation that Wrinkles, an aptly named shar-pei, is a veritable stage presence.
"The camera loves him," observes someone.
Evidently, licking is television gold. So is drinking water. The Animal Planet people have a "kiss cam," a "water bowl cam" and a "slow-motion cute cam." When a puppy drags the football into the end zone, the ref Dan Schnacher will pick up the victorious animal to announce a touchdown, or else he'll throw down a flag for a foul, which is just as valid an opportunity for color commentary. At one point, a little guy won't stop barking. Schnacher rushes onto the field.
"Magic, Magic, we've talked about this," he says, mugging for the camera. "Listen, I'm gonna have to call you on excessive celebration. You haven't even scored a touchdown, and you're celebrating. You want to be a player? The cheerleaders are over there. You can go join them!"
When he moves back to the sidelines, Animal Planet people pat him on the back encouragingly.
Most of the talk on-set comes in the form of fecal alerts, however. "Poopage!" someone calls out, or, "Poop patrol! Five-yard line, poop patrol!" Then the taping will pause as the mess is cleaned by a lumbering human who, in comparison to the puppies scampering around his feet, appears enormous. It is difficult to maintain a pristine set when the leading men and ladies haven't been potty trained yet.
Watching the Puppy Bowl taping, it's difficult to explain what the central tension or narrative arc is, primarily because there is no plot. It doesn't matter which dog scores a touchdown or which is called for "Illegal lounging." It all makes grown people talk in baby voices. And perhaps it's exactly this – the uncontested, free-form pleasure of it all – that makes some people suspicious. Depending whom you ask, Puppy Bowl is either the most wonderful earthly event conceivable, an indication of American brain-drain, bafflingly pointless or some combination thereof.
"It's like a screensaver that makes you squeal," I later explain to a friend who has never watched Puppy Bowl. "But better."
Because Puppy Bowl isn't just a screensaver. It's a miniature moral universe, an antidote to everyday acrimony. For a handful of hours, it fills us with an uncontrollable urge to nurture, to appreciate all organisms just because, to repeatedly ask the same rhetorical question – "Who wouldn't want to give a home to this one?" – about every dog, as though it is almost too obvious to say.
In the waiting room, the humans are rubbing bellies and cleaning shit. They're incredulously relating the sad circumstances in which the puppies have been found, happy to care for the dogs even if they are not strictly their own. I look for the woman from the Operation Kindness shelter who'd earlier introduced me to a tiny Jack Russell terrier with long, erect ears like a rabbit. "This is Darby," she says. "He's deaf, but he has no idea."
The woman was certain Darby would find a family soon. She was certain it didn't matter who won.
Puppy Bowl XII airs Sunday, February 7 at 3 p.m. ET on Animal Planet.