With the success of shows like Louie and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the FX network appears to have hit on a secret comedic formula. Louie works around the tension between the cerebral and the crude, and Sunny follows the misadventures of its detestable but endearing characters, so it’s no surprise that FX freshman Wilfred has a good mixture of brains and balls (I mean genital jokes here). There is no question that edgy comedy sells, but genuine edge comes from trash that provokes thought. Not the other way around.
Wilfred, originally a TV show from Australia, is about Ryan, an insecure everyman and his neighbor’s hell-raising dog. The season opens up with Ryan, played by a watery-eyed Elijah Wood, attempting an equally feeble suicide. Ryan is the type of guy who takes the time to revise his tome-like farewell letter, and mixes whey grass and low fat milk into his killer cocktail. He is shiftless and ineffectual, and fails even at suicide. The morning after, Ryan finds himself face to face with his neighborly crush, Jenna (played by Fiona Gubelmann), and her dog, which to Ryan looks more like a grown man (Jason Gann) in a shabby dog suit.
Together, Ryan and Wilfred make an unlikely pair. Throughout the series, Wilfred channels Ryan’s inner slacker (each show ends with a dialogue between the two in a classically stoner-esque, smoke filled basement room) and brings him, little by little, out from the shadow of his once pitiable life. In the second episode, Wilfred manages to coax Ryan into stealing a massive amount of marijuana from their motorcycle-riding, porn-obsessed asshole neighbor (played by My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee), but not before crapping in his boots. Other episodes have Ryan gradually breaking out of his shell. At the insistence, or coercion, of Wilfred, Ryan is seen telling off his bullying sister, or he is reconnecting with his flippantly mental mother.
The chemistry between Wood and Gann is well tuned. Wood is convincing as a weakling, recalling the burdened gaze and soppy speech of Frodo. But instead of falling back on the static image of loser-in-search-of-redemption, Wood possesses the acting chops to feel out the intricacy of the character, not to mention the freshness a Hollywood actor can bring to TV roles. Ryan is never so sad-sap to be sentimental or annoying, and Gann’s Wilfred is sure to be a classic in sitcom history. His crass wisdom has tangential value, and most remarkably he translates this mutt philosophy into terms Ryan, and the audience, can understand despite our common sense.
In this context, Wilfred stands out as a show; its combination between the existential and the absurd isn’t cloying and the parables with the cherubic music at the beginning of each episode avoid being heavy-handed or pushy. But what really makes Wilfred interesting is that the concept of a talking, drinking, smoking dog is passed off as something normal. When Ryan first sees Wilfred, he merely regards the man-dog as a curiosity, one that only elicits a vague “huh.” As they grow to know each other, Ryan never questions the anomaly of Wilfred. Even more, he accepts it, less as a result of madness but more out of simple exhaustion or boredom.
Likewise, we as the audience are along for the ride. In fact, some of the best scenes involve Gann’s human interpretation of dog behavior: Wilfred nervously digging holes with a shovel, Wilfred licking the face of an attractive women, Wilfred attacking a vacuum cleaner, Wilfred picking out shoes as if he was in line at the buffet. At these moments a man dressed as a dog seems perfectly reasonable. Though certainly the writers behind Wilfred are aware of this discrepancy between sanity and madness. They hint at it in a couple of episodes. Ryan’s mom is shown talking to her cat, and in the latest episode a man who calls himself Bruce (a convincing and hilarious cameo by Dwight Yoakam) claims to “see” Wilfred.
But the folks at the helm of Wilfred are smart enough to recognize the mystery working within the show. At every turn, the reasons behind Wilfred’s human form are disregarded as unimportant. And perhaps this is one part of the shows formula for success, to acknowledge both sides of the spectrum, the insane and the sane, the trash and the thought, but to purposely ignore the tenuous connections being made. Wilfred lies somewhere in that foggy middleground, reveling in the confusion.
Danielle Panabaker's Top Pop Picks
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