Meet Ryan, a former lawyer who has given up on life. Or had, until in the wake of a botched suicide attempt he's become best friends with his neighbor's dog Wilfred. Wilfred isn't just any dog, though, he's a foul mouthed pot head who loves to create chaos whereever he goes and in particular loves to make Ryan's life a blitz of trouble and conflict. He also happens to look and act like a man in a dog suit. Or at least to Ryan he does.
Wilfred Season One Blu-Ray Collection
Over the past decade or so, FX has established itself as a formidable enough basic cable player; not quite as popular as USA or as prestigious as AMC, the network that used to be little more than reruns of old Fox programs has blossomed into a home for unabashedly adult television. That's not "adult" in the Skinemax sense of the term either, but adult as in blunt, dark and at times vulgar. FX's comedies in particular have helped establish it as a serious threat, with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Louie functioning as its current critical leading lights, while Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck stand as mostly well remembered, long-running dramedies. And somewhere in the middle sits Wilfred, FX's reinterpretation of a quirky Australian series about a man and his only friend in the world, a pot-smoking, foul mouthed dog named, of course, Wilfred.
Appearing about a year after Louie premiered, Wilfred appeared poised to be a hit at least on the level of It's Always Sunny, thanks mostly to the starpower of Elijah Wood, here playing suicidal sad sack Ryan, and the fact that the American public has a thing for animals that may or may not talk to certain people (see: Family Guy, Harvey). While that hasn't quite proven to be true (Wilfred just began its second season, and its ratings have more or less fallen further and further with each episode), the show has nonetheless been a consistently funny sitcom that goes in unexpectedly dark directions, even if its plots often remain unfortunately formulaic and repetitive.
The recent release of the first season has allowed that aspect of the show to become plainly obvious in a way it wasn't while it aired. The show's episodes continue to hold up well enough– particularly the pilot and the pitch black fifth episode, which stands out as perhaps Wilfred's finest moment to date– but what is clear is that the show almost never deviates from its formula of Wilfred (co-creator Jason Gann, a vet of the original) manipulating Ryan, which leads to Wilfred imparting a false lesson on Ryan, which in turn leads to Ryan learning an actual lesson, usually relevant to the one word emotional titles the show gives each episode. The rigidness of that formula prohibits Wilfred from being a truly incredible comedy program and at times even threatens its very success, but the show's salvation comes in the form of Wood and Gann's chemistry, which feels utterly organic and is entirely captivating. The two stars work so well together that the highlights of the individual episodes are often merely the post-credit bumper sequences featuring the two getting stoned in the basement, shooting the shit.
Where Wilfred really soars, though, are in the moments where the show seems poised to bravely tread the kind of dark waters It's Always Sunny normally floats in. The aforementioned fifth episode, cheekily named "Respect," exemplifies this, as it finds Ryan taking Wilfred with him to volunteer at a hospice, where the two find themselves becoming celebrities due to Wilfred's apparently ability to sense when the patients are about to pass on. Ryan, who has dealt with Wilfred's agent of chaos nature for four episodes at this point, begins to suspect that Wilfred's "gift" is really just proof that the dog is truly psychotic and is granting the patients a twisted kind of mercy. The episode fits in a staggering number of deaths– including one genuine suicide– and ultimately ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, never entirely clarifying whether or not Wilfred was merely the benefactor of convenient timing or if he was actively aiding these people in their departures from the earth.
It's an expertly directed episode, with a cinematic look and feel and Gann handily carries the episode while Wood more than rises to the task of baffled straight man. Like many Wilfred episodes, it somewhat suffers from the awkward placement of its guest star (in this case Rashida Jones as a hospice nurse), but unlike some later episodes, it's not noticeable enough to truly detract from the overall experience. Even the show's weakest moments come not from those forced guest appearances (which are easily forgiven as obvious ratings grabs) but from the rest of Wilfred's cast, who manage to turn the show into a slacker comedy variation on Dexter in that respect. Chief among the offenders are Ryan's sister Kristen (Dorian Brown) and Ryan's sort of love interest Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) both of whom exist less as characters than obstacles.
In the case of the former, that obstacle is stubborn interference since Kristen serves as a quasi-mother figure to Ryan (which is given a bit of backstory and explanation in episode nine, with the reappearance of their actual mother, who is revealed to have been living in an asylum for quite some time) but Kristen heavy episodes, like the season's eight, "Anger," are difficult to tolerate since Kristen is so obviously designed as a threat for Ryan that even well-intentioned attempts to turn her into an actual character irritate and rankle. Even so, Jenna is a more complicated problem, as she's set-up to be Ryan's primary love interest, despite the fact that they seem to have exactly nothing in common and that their entire relationship is built around Ryan going out of his way to do things for Jenna. Granted, that latter point is why Ryan is interacting with Wilfred in the first place, but that's not really the kind of thing that sparks long term relationships or endears people to one another.
That aspect of their relationship is brought up towards the end of the season, though, as Ryan has a chance encounter with an Italian woman who offers him an
escape from the world he's become so distanced from and alienated by. It's Wilfred who ultimately convinces Ryan to forgo what very well may be his last chance at happiness in favor of giving in to his own dark weaknesses and finally making a move on Jenna and in the final two episodes of the season, the show truly finds its footing as a result of that development. Watching Ryan grow a spine is at first refreshing, in large part because of how good he turns out to be at digging up dirt and kicking ass as both a lawyer and a manipulator. But as the show sets the final pieces into place and all of Ryan's worst fears about what happens when he gives in to his darkness come true, it finally reaches some of its potential, revealing that many of the narrative choices throughout the season were building up to those final moments all along.
Complaints aside, Wilfred is commendable for doing what it can to break free from the monotony of network comedy in a way that's also quite different from its basic cable peers. It's worth pointing out that the show also simply looks fantastic, particularly in Blu-Ray, due to the unusually excellent cinematography and color correction utilized on the show, which makes the suburban SoCal world of Wilfred truly sparkle and shine. For most comedies, HD is kind of like putting icing on a hamburger, serving as an unnecessary sweetness that can often have the unintentional side effect of calling attention to flaws that would otherwise not be noticeable and clashing with the aesthetic intentions of the production altogether. But Wilfred isn't most comedies.
The first season package as a whole is notable for how well the aesthetic of the show is brought over to the product itself, from the hand drawn style of the packaging to the thoughtful extras and bonus content, all of which prove the show was a blast for cast and crew alike to work on, extending beyond the typical behind-the-scenes footage to include Wilfred's Comic-Con 2011 appearance to cheeky interviews and the self-explanatory "Wilfred & Bear: A Love Affair." Given the high rewatchability of the show, even with its minor faults, it's worth it to go the Blu-Ray route. Here's hoping Wilfred gets a few more dog years.
The second season of Wilfred has just started on FX. Catch it on Thursdays at 10 pm.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover