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The Epic Highs and Lows of the 19th Annual Puppy Bowl

Pickle sweep, let's go!!!!

The pups get ruff in 2023's 19th Annual Puppy Bowl.

Some people buss it down American style and watch the Super Bowl regardless of whether or not their team has made it (RIP Niners). Others get quirked up and make a bunch of memes about the Superb Owl, just so you know they couldn’t care less about spots culture. Others still sleep through it because they already watched The Last of Us, which got moved to Friday (lol).

Then there’s the rest of us, who watch the first hour of the Puppy Bowl, have a great time, and then pass out with their puppy on their lap, who’d really rather be having a puppy bowl of her own than watching TV.

I grew up in a sports-watching family and was used to just tepidly hanging around while my family threw parties and cooked good food for an event I tried my best to get into. I’m not a hater of sports, I just was never into the “culture” surrounding them. Just like with that one college-level stats course I failed, getting into organized sports was something that simply didn’t connect for me. But puppies? Well, shit, if I couldn’t understand puppies, then all joy would be utterly lost on me.

My compensation for putting up with all the sports shouting was a breakfast spent with my family and the Puppy Bowl. Yes, a balanced diet of scrambled eggs and a cavalcade of scrambling pups running around with their favorite chew toys. A Dionysian affair for a child, honestly. But how does it measure up for an adult woman who doesn’t “need” to stick around for anything anymore?

Well, like I said, I only lasted an hour before my boring, sleepy ass conked out. But the hour I lasted was pretty fantastic. Here’s the recap, straight from this old dog’s mouth.

Shelter dog hype

Each “round” of the Puppy Bowl is made up of two teams, Team Ruff vs. Team Fluff. These teams are made up of adoptable pups, which are linked in totality to (although they usually all get adopted by the time the show ends!).

Depending on how tired or overstimulated they get, some puppies will get switched out for others, but there were a lot of characters this time around that stayed on for a while. In particular, I was pretty impressed by Pickle: the game’s MVP who kicked ass the entire time, clomping around like he owned the place. Pickle was a Pom/Papillon/Chi mix, with a fluffy, fiery-red coat, and a stomp that conveyed chaos and violence to the umpteenth degree. Quoth the announcer: “Have you ever seen such a twerkin’ gherkin?”

And on that note, whoever writes the quotes and taglines for this show has the sexiest mind, quite honestly. It doesn’t even peak at “twerkin’ gherkin,” it just keeps going. “Opponents will expect a dilemma, when they go paw-to-paw with Emma.” Excellent flow, subtle and effective. “Meet Chickpea, AKA Chef Garbanzo.” Oh my god. “This is Butterbean, ready to go twelve rounds like an athletic machine.” Sweetheart, if you keep that fancy wordplay up, that’ll make two of us. Woof.

In all seriousness, they really do put so much passion and fun into the production of the Puppy Bowl, and you can see how genuine it is with how the ref manages these dogs. I mean, he just looked so happy, letting these puppies raise hell around him and only stepping in when there were “technical fouls.” We ALL know it’s bullshit, they’re puppies! But he’s basically engaging in play with them! And it’s adorable!

In particular, there was this moment where he picked up a scruffy little puppy named Effie, and while he was giving her a “stern” talking-to, she had that murderous thousand-yard stare that puppies get when they’re in full Play Mode. It cracked me up. I know that stare very, very well, and the very puppy who used to give it to me all the time was very attentively watching on my lap as the scene played out. Delightful.

What makes a Puppy Bowl

Of course, shows like this wouldn’t exist without sponsors, the likes of which I found comically polarizing. On the one hand, we had a shoutout from the likes of Zachary Levi, who will star in the upcoming movie Shazam! Fury of the Gods. This is the same Zachary Levi who got into some hot water for statements that were by and large anti-Pfizer, which then snowballed into later revelations about his other beliefs. I suppose they were just hopping on the DC promotion train and this happened to be a lucrative ad deal?

Still odd when juxtaposed with another major ad down the line, which highlighted the Nagi Foundation: a nonprofit founded by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Native Community with the intention of “restoring the sacredness of the Native American community by uniting people and animals.” Nagi was represented by the shelter puppy Inya, which the organization’s founder Sheila Iyengar had this to say about:

Inya is a representation of the resilience of our Native Animals. Like many pets who come to our clinics, she was once someone’s pet who was abandoned and needed help. Look how far she’s come with the help of our Community.

Sheila Iyengar, NAGI Foundation Founder & Executive Director

I think it’s incredibly lovely that the Puppy Bowl highlighted an organization like this, and I hope the heightened exposure will help Nagi gain new supporters and adopters. This is the sort of ad placement I think we need to see more of in high-profile TV programs, which only makes it more bizarre to see it played alongside the likes of Zachary Levi. I suppose it just ties back to something odd I’ve noticed since I was young, which was how animals (and animal rights in general) tend to be a strong unifier amongst all kinds of people.

For reference, I was a horse girl growing up—I still would be if horseback riding wasn’t so goddamn expensive!—and I met all kinds of people at the barns I rode at. I met some seemingly neat, crunchy-granola vegan types who ended up being anti-vax. I met eccentric artists who, while I was fond of, had a hard time having normal conversations with. And of course, I met stuffy NIMBYs with “got mine” mentalities to pair with their highly expensive riding gear. Why else would all these people be in the same place, if not for their love of the animals? And before you try to be contrarian and say “bUT ThAT’s juST hOrSE PEopLe,” I need you to be real with me and think about every staunch Animal Rights Activist you’ve met. They have INCREDIBLY varying politics, right? You think you’re bonding with a fellow pet parent, and before you know it, they’re explaining trickle-down economics to you with a twinkle in their eye. Bamboozled by the borks, yet again.

In that vein, the Puppy Bowl almost had me feeling philosophical. Maybe the world’s woes and greatest conundrums could be solved through the power of animal rights. Maybe some savvy modern pundit could find a way to get everyone on board with the same things by using animal rights parallels or metaphors. Yes, this sounds like a load of crap, but in watching these pet-friendly ads, I was genuinely brought back to a time when my greatest concern was learning that some people left their dogs out in the rain. Imagine how much we’d get done if we could field that same amount of concern for, you know. Other human beings.

Ah, well. They can’t get us too lost in the sauce of communal altruism, hence all the PS5 ads. But it was a nice detour, and I’m glad to have been introduced to Nagi at the very least.

Is the Puppy Bowl worth the hype?

Oh, god yes, obviously it is. It hearkens back to an era of Animal Planet when the channel was actually about animals. Why do Animal Rights people get so incensed about animal rights? Because animals are dope! Animals are fantastic! And the pets we invite into our families are some of the best people we might ever meet in our lives. I’ve only just overcome the grief of a beloved family dog, yet I still look at old pictures of her and feel the heaviness of that loss.

Really and truly, don’t take my insomnia-riddled experience as an indication that the show is boring. I mean, sure, it’s just three hours of puppies playing, so at a certain point the novelty wears off, but there’s a mundane comfort in that all the same. Passing out peacefully because I’m being lulled to sleep by the antics of sweet, fluffy puppies … what more does a person truly need in their life?

My dog and I give this year’s Puppy Bowl two full scoops of kibble, with some egg and chicken mixed in. Make of that what you will.

(Featured Image: HBO, via USA Today)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer, dog mom, and casual insomniac. Her prior experiences with media have taken her down many different roads, from local history podcasts to music coverage & production. Niche interests include folk music, elves/wizards, and why horses are cool actually.