Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wilfred: “Confrontation”

Illustration for article titled Wilfred: “Confrontation”

Wilfred is probably the funniest show around to begin with the main character attempting suicide. Does that make it a comedy? Well, yes, most of the time—it fits the genre conventions of jokes told, lessons learned, and issues resolved. But there are two aspects of the show that mean that it's always just a moment away from turning into a straight-up drama.

First, there's the mythology. As long as the “What is Wilfred?” question hangs over the show, there's a major component of the element that can't be a joke. The end of “Confrontation,” in which Ryan's mom reveals that the person who drew the picture that's been driving this season's mythology was Kristen, not Ryan, was one such example. There's no way to have a revelation like that be a joke, and the show knows it. The credits roll, somewhat ominous music plays, and there's no silly mid-credits gag. We're supposed to just let the reveal that Kristen drew a picture of Wilfred sink in.

But there's a more grounded, serious element to Wilfred. That's the suicide specifically, combined with Ryan's overall mental health issues. This is the story of a mentally ill man trying to get better, and there's not much that indicates that that's definitely going to happen. The cause of his mental illness is always going to be complex and unknown, but it's likely to relate to his family, either through behavior or genetics.

So having Ryan interact with his entire family for the first time ever on the show means directly “confronting” his mental illness. This episode focuses more on effects than causes—the climax is Ryan telling his dad that he attempted suicide—but regardless, it's a dramatic episode, with some cleverness and some absurdity thrown in.

At this point, Wilfred playing it straight by having a potentially tense family dinner turn into an actual tense family dinner qualifies as something of a surprise. (I suppose it's a strength of the show that both doing the unexpected and playing it straight can be surprising.) And the drama is played well, in such a way that leads back to the real and more interesting overarching question of the season: Is Ryan's dad the demon that Ryan thinks/needs him to be?

I have to say, this is the kind of mystery that I really enjoy on TV shows. Even though they're not actually books, most TV shows are told with distinct perspectives—Wilfred is a first-person story from Ryan's POV. His information is our information, and it's also extremely rare for us to see any scenes that he's not in (has that ever happened on the show?). This lets us see all the other characters in terms of their behavior. Most of the time, that's colored by Ryan's subjective views of who they are—for example, the dog-obsessed high school friend from earlier this episode comes across as extra-annoying and crazy, because Ryan sees her that way.


But that's not always the case. Wilfred, of course, is usually filtered through Ryan's perspective because Ryan's the only one who ever sees him. But in terms of his behavior, we're left to judge it on our own. Ryan's dad has been much simpler. We only see his behavior in the here and now (and one brief flashback). There is no internal monologue, and critically, we don't see any actions that we can use to judge his behavior. This is an advantage of the limited-POV storytelling: Ryan's dad can be recognizably human, not demonstrate any behavior of good or ill, and we can't know. (This is also quite different from how Wilfred treated Amanda last season—she was portrayed as totally understandable until suddenly she wasn't.)

The most intentional choice for making “Confrontation” more dramatic than comedic was to decrease the comic aspects of Wilfred himself. He's still a dog doing occasionally silly dog things, but he's doing it for a real pathos, attempting to get over being abandoned by his family of Jenna and Drew. That ends up being the real core to the episode—one that works well as an examination of a difficult family dynamic, and gains power from that simplicity.


Stray observations:

  • Ryan describes his last meeting with his father. “We had a little chat over some champagne.”
  • “You want to use my baby? …That's genius.” This is a great little moment from Kristen.
  • Wilfred dislikes Ryan's father at a glance. “Pure evil. He even looks like Michael Vick!”
  • “Right. Thanks. Namaste.” “Tsk.” Ryan's mother's caretaker is used just enough to be fantastic in his three brief appearances. Desdemona indeed.