Wilfred debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.
I have cats. You probably have a pet or two. If there’s one thing that’s universal to pet owners, it’s the way that we anthropomorphize our animals. Every person I know, from the least imaginative and creative to the most, ascribes human emotions and motivations to their furry roommates. Most of the time, we give them voices to explain just what they’re doing. But we don’t ever really SAY we’re doing this. Once, my sister started talking in a strange voice when her cat was acting up, then blushed, embarrassed, and said, “Sometimes, we say what the cat is thinking.” And in an instant, we all knew exactly what she was doing, even if she was embarrassed by it. FX’s new comedy Wilfred, which features as one of its most important characters a man dressed as a dog, sometimes seems like the best possible version of making a sitcom about this human quirk.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Wilfred is weird. Sometimes, it’s hilariously weird. Sometimes, it’s weirdly isolating. But it’s never anything other than weird. On the other hand, you probably know that already. You’ve seen the promos. You know this is a series about a guy who starts hanging out with a man in a dog suit that everybody but him sees as a dog. That right there is a pretty weird notion to build a TV show around, and it’s not going to stop being weird. It’s straight out of Calvin And Hobbes, really, though that comic had the benefit of being about a little kid. Little kids have imaginary friends, so the less generous among us could just say that everything in that strip was taking place in Calvin’s head. Elijah Wood—or people like him, at least—is not allowed to have imaginary friends.
And, yes, Wilfred is a work in progress. It’s a show that’s still finding its voice, and in the three episodes I’ve seen, the weird blend of scatological humor, pot jokes, just plain weird jokes, and occasional treatises on the nature of existence and the philosophy of life doesn’t blend together as well as it might. From the promos, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is just a goofy stoner comedy, but Wilfred very much has a serious head on its shoulders and wants you to know that it’s also about one man’s journey from crippling depression to a better life, all thanks to the possible delusion he has of a talking dog. It’s a show where a man regains his primacy by feeling free to unleash the animal inside of him, sort of like that Tim Allen show coming up this fall on ABC, only with, y’know, a talking dog.
I keep bringing up the talking dog because it’s kind of hard to avoid. At the same time, Wilfred himself is the show’s best idea, and to the show’s credit, it knows this. Every time Elijah Wood—as main character Ryan—and Jason Gann—as the dog Wilfred—are on screen together, the show starts to crackle. The two have very good chemistry, and the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak. He’s agreeably game, surprisingly aggressive, and remarkably funny, even when just hanging out in the background of a scene and grinning menacingly at Ryan or another character. As the straight man in this relationship, Wood is also very good, and though the show breezes right by the suicidal moments that lead to Wilfred becoming an unlikely life coach, Wood does a good job of showing just how Ryan might have gotten to a moment this desperate and horrific.
Tonight’s pilot is the weakest of the first three episodes, trying too hard to set up too much and sometimes coming off as moving along too quickly. The climax of the episode revolves around poop jokes, and though one of the central ideas of the show is that Ryan needs to give in to his more animal instincts, having him start marking his territory like a dog would isn’t as funny as the show wants to be. (To the series’ credit, these “Ryan acts like a dog, too!” moments grow more and more subtle as the episodes go on.) And yet there’s a low-key charm to it, to the way that Ryan reaches the end of his rope and tries to commit suicide—endlessly revising his suicide note—and to the way that Ryan meets Wilfred and initially thinks he’s going insane but eventually just goes with it. The show never tries too hard to clarify just what’s going on with Wilfred, nor does it give Ryan an easy out of having Wilfred be a hallucination or the result of a magical curse. Wilfred simply is, and Ryan just has to go along with it.
Later episodes are also stronger because the show begins to flesh out the world of Ryan and Wilfred’s neighborhood more. Both Ethan Suplee and Chris Klein turn up, rather playing against type, and both are hilarious. Ryan starts to get invested in the lives of some of his neighbors, simply because he has to take Wilfred out for a walk every so often. And Ryan begins to grow closer to Wilfred’s owner, Jenna (a winning Fiona Gubelmann), despite the fact that Wilfred is not terribly keen on having this loser guy he spends his days with (while Fiona’s at work) ending up with his “perfect” owner. It’s a new spin on the love triangle, and all three actors involved play it hilariously well.
If the show has a flaw, then, it’s the more philosophical stuff. Family Guy veteran David Zuckerman, who’s running the series, which is based on an Australian original series, wants the show to not just be about a guy and a dog who hang out but also about what separates men from beasts and how you come to change your life and grow up (or, in Ryan’s case, let go of some of that forced maturity), sometimes by something as simple as being around a dog. There’s a good nugget in here somewhere about how having to take care of something—anything!—will eventually make you a better human being, just by virtue of having to think of something other than yourself. But there’s also the sense that the show thinks it’s deeper than it actually is in these first few episodes. That’s not to say that it couldn’t reach profundity in later episodes; it just hasn’t quite yet.
At the same time, though, the casting is so rock solid and the writing is so different from anything else on TV that Wilfred is well worth a watch, just to see if it can ever pull off this elaborate mixture of tones and influences. (Even if it only does for one episode, it'll be an incredible episode of television.) Right now, it isn’t, not quite, but it’s also like absolutely nothing else on TV (Wilfred is certainly nothing like Family Guy’s Brian), which earns it some points. The best scenes in these episodes often just involve Ryan and Wilfred hanging out on the couch at the end of the episode, creating their own, weird versions of the Troy and Abed tags from Community. The more the show fleshes out its world, the more it creates something unique and interesting, the more it still all comes down to two guys sitting on a couch and making each other (and us) laugh.
- Rowan Kaiser will be taking over reviews of Wilfred from week to week from here on out.
- If there’s a character I don’t think quite works, it’s the character of Ryan’s sister, who has little else to do but yell at Ryan at how big of a fuck-up he is. And who wants to see that?
- The funniest episode I’ve seen is next week’s, which involves Ryan taking Wilfred to the vet. I will say no more.