The Unexpected Jewishness of ‘Haute Dog’

The HBO Max show is a welcome addition to the reality TV canon, especially thanks to the delightful Jewish host, Jess Rona.

I mostly can’t handle reality competition shows. They’re too cutthroat, too mean, too, well, competitive. So I was hesitant when I first learned about Haute Dog, the new competitive dog grooming show on HBO Max.

The format is just like Nailed It!, which is just about the meanest show I’ve ever seen. Nailed It! is hosted by a sassy comedian, the otherwise delightful Nicole Byer, who joins an expert pastry chef, Jacques Torres, and a different random celebrity guest each episode to savagely critique amateur bakers who are challenged to execute baking projects leagues above their skill level.

Haute Dog is hosted by a sassy comedian, Matt Rogers, and judged by expert dog groomer Jess Rona and random (in the context of dog care) celebrity Robin Thede. These kittens, I feared, have claws.

I’ve never been so pleased to be so wrong. Happily for me, and unusually for this genre, Haute Dog is not only heartwarming, it’s also profoundly soothing. Despite the ticking timer, there’s none of the anxiety-producing urgency that characterizes most shows like this. That’s because the contestants aren’t panicking over a pile of mismatched ingredients or struggling to cut an uncooperative fabric. They’re bathing and grooming dogs. To get the best results, it behooves (be-paws?) them to stay calm.

The heart of the show is the regal Jess Rona. The comedian turned celebrity dog groomer is one of the executive producers, and Haute Dog’s lux, ‘70s-style aesthetic comes straight from her book Groomed and her massively popular Instagram. That goes from the decor to the framing of the dogs: Her signature move is to put a powerful wind machine on a dopey-looking pup, giving every pooch its Mariah Carey moment. She’s knowledgeable, dropping fun facts about every breed and offering concrete guidance to the guest groomers, but what grounds the show is her warm, encouraging demeanor.

Unlike some TV judges who insist on, for example, comparing the contestants’ focaccias to their own, Jess tempers her wisdom with curiosity. Even when she identifies room for improvement in a cut, she always focuses on the good, the creative, the cute. She rules magnanimously, and in a wardrobe that favors gold thread and jewel tones, she honestly gives me major Queen Esther vibes.

It’s not so far-fetched — Jess herself is Jewish. She’s joked in interviews that she owes her career in pet care to a chutzpadik move by her “typical Jewish mother.” They were at a PetSmart when Jess was 18 and, seeing a help wanted sign, her mom told the manager to give her daughter a job. She was hired for the unglamorous position of dog bather; it’s humanizing to imagine the teenage Jess, working away in some strip mall in a California suburb, her American Eagle jeans soaked by industrial-grade dog shampoo.

On a recent Instagram live event, I asked Jess if she identifies as Jewish. Displaying the same thoughtfulness she does with contestants on the show, she answered, “I was born a Jew. I’ve done the DNA tests and I’m 100% Jewish. But…I’m a bad Jew. I don’t do the holidays. So I guess, I’m culturally Jewish.”

I get what she means, but speaking as a proud Jew who also doesn’t do the holidays, it’s my opinion that Jess Rona is a great Jew. She’s learned, generous with her knowledge, and infinitely kind. Jess has spoken openly about her struggles with anxiety, which she jokes she named Abby (rude). Haute Dog, the product of her vision and hard work, reminds me how much a sense of purpose can combat anxiety. Furry friends help, too.

Jess’s Jewishness is woven into the inclusive fabric of the show. The other judge is a woman of color, the glamorous Robin Thede, best known as the creator and star of A Black Lady Sketch Show. The host, Matt Rogers, is, as Marshal Knight points out on the blog Reality Blurred, the first openly gay host of a non-queer game show (as opposed to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which caters primarily to a queer audience). The casting doesn’t feel like a cynical bid for diversity and inclusion, but rather representative of the world of competitive pet care.

There’s a strong queer presence in other pet show media, from Christopher Guest’s classic mockumentary Best in Show to the underrated Netflix doc Cat Walk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit. A number of contestants dedicate their performances on Haute Dog to their same-sex partners, while others do up their dogs in drag, or style them as queer icons. Diversity is part of Haute Dog, but it’s not the point. The reason we’re all here, ladies, gentlemen, and esteemed nonbinary friends, is to groom dogs. Haute Dog fulfills a need I didn’t know I had: It’s a makeover show without the heteronormativity.

Ultimately, what sets Haute Dog apart from other competition shows is that it’s an absolute lovefest. The groomers love the dogs, the panel loves the dogs, the groomers love the panel, the panel loves each other. At first, I thought the camaraderie on the panel was just an act, an extension of the stylistic decision to dispense with the good cop/bad cop dynamic that is common in reality TV judging. But like the diverse representation, the friendship we see is natural and genuine. This is never so apparent as in season 1 episode 9, “Fairy Tails,” when Matt announces that he can do a spot-on Jess Rona impression. Softening his eyes and smiling as if looking at a freshly groomed dog, he says:

I love it. But… if you have scissors, I would go… up? You know, I just want a more schmoopy leg, cause if the back legs are boofy, you want the front legs to be more schmoopy. And… rear angulation! And you did a really cute job.

Mixing Jess’ fake Yiddish babytalk with real dog grooming jargon (rear angulation is to Haute Dog as soggy bottom is to Great British Bake Off), it’s a loving tribute. The camera cuts from Matt to Robin and Jess who are both cry-laughing. The accuracy! And in a moment of probably unintentional shade to their competition show competitor, both Robin and Jess declare, “Nailed it.” (Okay, it’s definitely unintentional. Jess grooms Nicole Byer’s dog and was a guest on her podcast Why Won’t You Date Me.)

In these bleak pandemic days, Haute Dog is delivering the serotonin boost I desperately need: funny people, gorgeously dressed, loving on dogs. In an episode focusing on mixed breed dogs, Matt asks Jess how grooming mutts is different from grooming purebreds. Jess, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the conventions and options for all manner of dog breeds, answers in a way that may well be the philosophy of the show: “I think, just look at the dog and say, ‘What can I do to bring out this particular dog’s beauty?’”

So now, when I’m feeling not quite schmoopy enough, I look in the mirror and I ask myself the same question.

Abigail Weil

Abigail Weil's (she/her) writing has appeared in Contingent Magazine, Electric Lit, and Serious Eats, and she's working on a book about Jaroslav Hašek. She lives in Philadelphia with her cat, Schmutzy.

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