Way back in 1982, John R. Erikson started spinning yarns about a dog named Hank who is less Lassie and more Frasier Crane. If you don’t know Hank the Cowdog, he works as head of security on a ranch in the Texas Panhandle with his sidekick, Drover. Each story is told by Hank, who, according to himself, “is a purebred, top-of-the-line blue ribbon cow dog.” Inevitably, Hank’s inflated ego and sense of self-importance get him into tricky (and hilarious) situations that the cowardly Drover (a “little mutt”) would have easily avoided by hiding.
The stories span 76 books and seven audiobooks, yet never an animated series. Then, late last year, a five-part podcast adaptation based on the eleventh book in the series, Lost in the Dark Unchanted Forest, quietly dropped on the various providers, and it is a cartoon for the ears.
One lazy spring morning, while the owner of the ranch, High Loper, his wife Sally May, and son Little Alfred, are visiting some mysterious place called “Hospital,” Drover and J.T. Cluck the rooster call Hank over to inspect a huge track in the dirt. They’re afraid that it could be a bobcat’s. Knowing for a fact that a bobcat hasn’t been seen on the ranch in years, it’s painfully obvious to Hank that the track was left by a giant raccoon.
Naturally, a raccoon cannot be allowed to trespass like that, so Hank prepares for action with a nap. That night on patrol Hank finds out, mid-leap, that the creature is not, in fact, a raccoon. After getting swatted around the feed barn like a helpless toy mouse by Sinister the Bobcat, Hank graciously lets him off with a warning.
The next day the family returns with what Hank is certain must be groceries. Except they’re wrapped in a pink blanket, and Sally May is talking to them. When she shows him what’s in the bundle, it’s a giant, bald headed lizard! Well, actually it’s Little Alfred’s new baby sister, Molly. Feeling replaced and unloved, Little Alfred runs away from home into the Unchanted Forest, where Sinister lurks and Hank must track him down.
Leaning hard into his native Texas drawl and trademark rhythmic patterns of speech, Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) is perfect as the voice of Hank. Joining in on the fun are Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) as Drover, Kirsten Dunst (Spiderman) as Sally May, Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) as Sinister, and several other major Hollywood talents.
Each bite-sized episode is just long enough to entertain on a trip to the grocery store, but might be a little too silly for bedtime. Hank’s stories are designed to entertain, and creator Erikson’s values simply come through naturally as the adventure unfolds. In between fits of laughter we learn some important lessons about family and how we should treat one another, but only incidentally.
Will Hank himself ever learn humility? For the sake of everyone who loves to laugh, I certainly hope not. (HTC Productions)