Last week’s Wilfred struggled with a recasting of a major recurring character, when it switched Bruce from Dwight Yoakam to William Baldwin. It may not have been a major downgrade, but it was a distraction. This week’s episode, “Responsibility,” has a similar issue in its premise—Mary Steenburgen couldn’t appear, presumably because she was too busy filming Justified season six and Orange Is The New Black season three and who am I to complain about that—so the part of Ryan’s mother Catherine was recast with Mimi Rogers.
What makes “Responsiblity” work far better than last week’s “Patterns” is that the recast character isn’t at the core of the episode. Rogers isn’t a distraction because she’s more than capable of being good enough, while two other characters, Ryan’s sister Kristen and Catherine’s therapist Dr. Cahill, are the real main characters. This gives Rogers the chance to be effective around the periphery, instead of forcing us to wonder if she’s doing better or worse or trying to be Steenburgen.
And the most important part of that is that both of those actors are allowed to do what they’re best at. John Michael Higgins, playing Catherine’s doctor, is a master of deadpan comedy, and that perfectly complements Wilfred’s normal surreal craziness and Elijah Wood’s exasperated straight man role. Meanwhile, Dorian Brown as Kristen has been good enough at being the uptight stereotype that she was brought in to be, but she’s really shone when she’s had the opportunity to indicate further depth of any kind. That’s been largely missing from this season, but “Responsibilities” finally gives her a scene to be something other than a Horrible Female Stereotype, and she nails it, evoking sympathy from a predictable emotional collapse and then managing to land a “hit it and quit it” joke in the middle of crying.
But it’s really Dr. Cahill who makes the episode as work as a whole. I’ve mentioned a few times that Wilfred this season tends to have pushed the jokes to the side (or perhaps they’re not landing as consistently with the silly dog humor) but Cahill has a consistent stream of jokes that land in addition to Wilfred’s moderately amusing three-legged dog obsession. With that, the entire episode remains funny from beginning to end, thanks to deadpan humor working regardless of the weirdness or emotional intensity of any given scene.
In addition to the critically important humor for the episode, its structure is also much more satisfying than most of the rest of the season has been. The form for most episodes in season four has been: Ryan receives a clue about what Wilfred might be; Ryan investigates that; it turns into a story of the week; then Ryan finds another clue to set up the next week’s story. This has led to a general feeling of dissatisfaction, because every episode’s main thrust is to lead to next episode instead of existing on its own.
“Responsibilities” succeeds because it gets the mythology aspect out of the way early, turning Catherine’s knowledge of Bruce into a quick joke and moving straight past it. We’re not supposed to care about what happens with Ryan’s mother and sister because that will lead to a clue, but because we’re supposed to simply care about them. This is a common issue for mythology-driven shows: they have to find a balance between intrinsic motivation and the external goal of finishing the story. This holds true even for ostensible comedies like Wilfred, and it’s good to see that it hasn’t totally taken over the show.
The only aspect of “Responsibilities” that falls apart is Cahill’s recurring gang-rape joke. Unlike most of the other funny bits he drops, the entirety of this joke seems to be that he looks like a competent white dude, and therefore unlikely to have been gang-raped. It’s a sour note, to be sure, but it’s about the only one in the episode. Apart from that, “Responsibilities” is the best episode of the season so far.
- Yes, Kristen can be meaner than Ryan. “You’re gonna have to do a lot better than that, you dickless syphilitic runt.”
- “...and Bald Bull starts doing the bull charge before you know it Mario’s just ee eh ow.”
- “Does your mom look different?” A Wilfred lampshading!
- See, Higgins is great. “It was only after your mother left Clouds that I, how should I put this delicately, ‘knocked the dust off it.’”
- “If I end this relationship then, clinically speaking, I’m going to be making her the opposite of happy...” “Sad.”
- “Holeeeee shit! I’m a three-legged dog, dude! Woooo!” The tag doesn’t seem like it’ll make a huge difference to anything, but it was a pretty good joke. I suppose we’ll see about the rest.