Review: FX’s Wilfred is Weird (in More Ways Than One)

I am very curious to see how people respond to FX’s Wilfred, which debuts tonight at 10/9c on FX.

On the one hand, I’m interested in how divisive the show’s premise will be: this is a decidedly weird premise, and the show doesn’t spend any time trying to explain or justify it in tonight’s premiere. “Happiness” begins with Elijah Wood’s Ryan imagining his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a bipedal, pot-smoking dude in a dog suit – creator/producer Jason Gann, to be specific – and simply moves on from there.

However, on the other hand, I’m wondering what those expecting something truly bizarre are going to think when they discover that Wilfred isn’t as weird as its premise might indicate. Now, don’t get me wrong: this is still a weird show, and all three episodes sent to critics feature moments which play on the premise quite directly. And yet, at the same time, all three episodes boil down to some pretty general themes, and this is at its core the story of a depressed man exploring his identity with the help of a friend. That the friend is imaginary, and that he is actually a dog, is not really the point of it all, which was kind of surprising given that “Guy in a Dog Suit” was pretty much all I knew about the show going in.

While I find Wilfred to be occasionally amusing, and certainly think that the premise holds narrative potential, what I’ve seen so far ends up coasting on the premise without really exploring it to any large degree. Individual setpieces may signal where the show may succeed in the future, and Wood and Gann may be strong anchors around which to build a larger comic world, but this is a surprisingly small show given its larger-than-life premise.

And while that may benefit that show in the end, it has resulted in a bit of a slow start that might engender a mixed reaction.

Maybe this is just me, but while I struggle to ignore logic questions under normal circumstances, I find it even more difficult when the show itself completely ignores logic questions. I don’t mean that I needed there to be a scientific reason why Wilfred sees his neighbor’s dog as a dude in a dog suit: the show provides enough psychological reasoning that I’m willing to go along with the playfulness of it all. However, as the show progresses, I kept focusing on whether or not we were supposed to think the actual dog was doing everything that the imaginary dog was doing, or whether the actions of the imaginary dog were entirely disconnected from the actual dog.

You’re likely yelling through your computer screen that these questions don’t matter, and you’re right: the show never dwells on the premise, and by the second episode has entirely come to terms with the idea that Ryan’s only friend is an imaginary projection of his neighbor’s canine. And yet I found myself unable to avoid focusing on it, the premise continually popping into the back of my mind even when I was meant to be focusing on a fairly basic comedy plot unfolding in front of me.

This premise is distinctive, even if it is a premise pulled from Gann’s original short film and Gann’s Australian Series with an identical premise (and, given his involvement, an identical co-star). I haven’t seen either the short film or the Australian series, however, so there was still a sense of novelty and, to be honest, a sort of distraction. Although the show very quickly slips into a groove by ignoring larger questions of its premise and just starting to play out scenarios built around the buddy dynamic, I didn’t find myself slipping into the groove myself. It wasn’t that I wasn’t buying the premise, or that the premise was entirely lost on me: I didn’t balk at the idea of a character exploring his psychological struggles through a hallucination, and I thought Gann did a nice job of selling canine psychology through a stoner deadpan throughout the three episodes I’ve seen. Instead, it just seemed like the show was skimming the surface of its premise rather than really exploring it.

The show gets somewhat closer to what I was looking for in the third episode, “Fear,” which plays around with the sentience of the hallucinations and throws in some temporal shifting for good measure. But there is something very strange about the speed at which the rest of Ryan’s life just completely disappears in order to focus on his relationship with his imaginary friend. I think this is somewhat hard to explain, but it’s like the show is too comfortable in its own skin too early in its run: although the show suggests, narratively speaking, that Ryan and Wilfred are still sniffing one another out, the casualness of the show doesn’t really jive with that.

However, even given this response to the three episodes I’ve seen, I don’t consider it some sort of concern for the longevity of the series. I think Wood and Gann have an easy chemistry, and Fiona Gubelmann is a solid third wheel as Wilfred’s owner, Jenna. And while the episodes I’ve seen didn’t make me laugh a whole lot, I was perpetually interested even if that interest occasionally wandered to the larger premise rather than the episodes themselves. There is something here, there is no question about that, and even if it doesn’t entirely show itself in the first three episodes I would tend to think that it could very easily show itself before the first season is done.

Cultural Observations

  • Although Chris Klein and Ethan Suplee appear in coming weeks (with the latter showing up in tonight’s premiere), the upcoming lineup of guest stars is both more exciting and very encouraging. I’ll let other spoil the surprise, but the press kit bodes well for the show’s future.
  • Given Gann’s involvement, the old “Why not just air the Australian version?” question rears its ugly head yet again. The reasoning is the same as it always is, in that a network stands to earn much more money with a show that they own, that they can control, and that they can build around a more recognizable figure in America (in this case Wood).
  • It is likely not a coincidence that “Fear,” my favorite episode of those screened, was the one written by Gann himself – he definitely seems to have a handle on these character types, and he gives himself the most showy Wilfred sequence (and, as noted, some of the more interesting narrative devices) to play around with.
  • Wilfred will be paired with the returning Louie, which is certainly an odd pairing for a number of reasons – I’ll hopefully have a review of the Louie premiere, “Pregnant,” later tonight.
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8 Comments

Filed under Wilfred

8 responses to “Review: FX’s Wilfred is Weird (in More Ways Than One)

  1. sounds like a good companion show to Louie to me but we shall see

  2. PattiS

    “Skimming the surface” seems to be the norm for shows that we have been led to expect more from. Nurse Jackie and The Big C both had interesting premises and very good actors, but the shows are disappointingly light. It sounds like Wilfred’s marketing people have also been promising more than the show delivers. From the ads, I would have expected very weird, too.

  3. Blue Boar

    1. you fools use the word permise far too much.
    2. it’s the biggest thing FX has ever broadcasted.
    3. light one up and watch it you thesaurus “skimming” straights.

    BW

  4. campbell

    This was an excellent analysis. The later episodes have begun to explore the concept further, as you predicted.

  5. Ryan’s more insane than you realize. Ryan’s doing everything and sees Wilfred as the one doing it. Also, in the show, the basement that Ryan is in may not even exist. He might just be sitting in a closet with Wilfred in a day dream.

    • Gabe Wells

      I just started watching this show tonight, but totally agree with the notion that much of this is imagined by Ryan. I also like that the dialogue is simple enough to imagine different perspectives as the show runs, for example the scene with Wilfred asking Ryan to throw the ball is fun to imagine from the perspective of Ryan with a normal dog and the dog just staring up at him wanting him to throw the ball; a situation in which many people may have a similar internal dialogue that they project onto their dog.

  6. wasabi

    by season 2 its fairly apparent that Wilfred is the projection of Ryan’s id onto his neighbors dog. Because of the choice of focus for his mental projection, Ryan’s mind rationalizes his canine tendencies rather well while having them run parallel to his own subconscious goals. Ryan spent his entire life under his fathers thumb doing as hes told and has difficulty pursuing his own selfish desires, so he personifies his id onto a lesser animal to which such selfish and often self destructive tendencies can be excused (he doesn’t know any better, he’s just a dog). when they’re in the basement, they’re actually in Ryan’s subconscious (the basement being a fairly common metaphor for the subconscious in literature). Bruce, is also imaginary and is the manifestation of Ryan’s super ego (notice hes human), telling him he shouldn’t cater to Wilfred’s whims and ultimately listening to unrestrained id will lead him to ruin. Wilfred and Bruce compete for the role of Jiminy Cricket to Ryan, like a devil and an angel on his shoulder shouting advice as to what he should and shouldn’t do. in the end, Ryan chooses Wilfred, as hes still too uncomfortable being assertive and getting what he wants by himself.

  7. nathan

    Oh shit the fuck up!

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