One of the big debates in comedy in, well, let’s call it the Seth MacFarlane era (although post-Simpsons might be equally appropriate) is, how much can or should a comedy get away with by winking at the audience? If it does something clichéd or horrible, does acknowledging that give it a pass?
For example, MacFarlane’s shows, especially the flagship series Family Guy, regularly borrow from movies while declaring that they’re doing just that (Family Guy's Star Wars parodies are even apparently popular enough to be sold as individual DVDs). Meanwhile, it’s hard not to see the influence of Family Guy on the rise of “ironic racism,” with its casual but constant jokes about people being Jewish that turn into entire characters and storylines. It’s unfair to say this is just Family Guy, but it is, perhaps, the purest example of a show that makes jokes out of telling its audience that, yes, it knows what it’s doing.
Wilfred has danced around this idea before, but its meta-humor has been steadily growing through the middle of this second season. This is mostly due to Ryan’s developing understanding of Wilfred the dog’s behavior, which also serves as an understanding of Wilfred the show’s tropes. But with “Questions,” the show starts to rely on winking at the audience, and in doing so, I think it demonstrates how this kind of humor can work well.
In “Questions,” Ryan goes on a drug-induced vision quest, a common trope. No sooner does the vision quest start than a Native American spirit guide, named Red Wolf, shows up to help Ryan. This is immediately subverted when Wilfred starts arguing with Red Wolf, saying he already had it covered. This is one of the three explanations for Wilfred’s existence and behavior used by the show (along with Wilfred as a chaos spirit and Wilfred as a manifestation of Ryan’s insanity), and normally, it’s one of the least effective.
This time, I think it works, because even though Wilfred acknowledges its ridiculousness, the episode still commits to the trope. After several minutes of Red Wolf arguing with Wilfred and then leading Ryan on his quest in a most well-worn fashion, Red Wolf eventually tells Ryan: “All that you see here are the creations of your own mind. Perhaps that explains why I am such a stereotype.” I love the look on Elijah Wood’s face as he tries to figure out a response here. But the odd camera lenses, the tension over what Ryan needs to learn on his quest, the natural setting that Wilfred has almost never used, the quest-within-the-quest, and the eventual resolution? All of them count, even if they’re a bit silly.
And that’s what makes “Questions” work, I think. It’s not just doing a vision quest episode because it thinks it can get a few jokes about Native American stereotypes and drugs out of the way. It’s doing it because there’s some meaning to be found. I appreciate Wilfred making that attempt.
- “Well, I hope that’s not true. You’ve been drinking it this whole time.”
- “Take the... air quote out... and yes.” Gil Birmingham is fun here. I guess he’s been in that Twilight stuff as a stereotypical Native American, but I for one prefer to think of him as the stereotypical Native American from the far superior Veronica Mars.
- “Wilfred, stay!” “...really, dude?!?”
- Also quite fun: Brad Dourif. Although I thought “Hey, that guy looks a lot like Wormtongue, I wonder who it is” more than “Hey, that’s Wormtongue!” The Lord Of The Rings films are ten years old!