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By Matt Meier · June 24, 2011
I saw the first TV spot for FX’s new comedy Wilfred while watching re-runs of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with my roommate. In the spot, a sunken-eyed Elijah Wood stares off with vacant concern while a man in a dog costume licks his face. “WTF?” my roommate said with a laugh. “That has to be the dumbest show ever.” As similar ads continued to arise, the seemingly half-baked absurdity of Wilfred quickly became an ongoing inside joke in our house.
Thus you can imagine my surprise when, upon sitting down to watch the series premier, the show opened with a quote from Mark Twain:
“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.”
Cut to Elijah Wood, in his room, smiling contently as he completes the third revision of his suicide note. He then jauntily precedes to the kitchen and blends himself a mixture of reduced-fat milk, a banana, a bottle of Xanax, and FitLife meal supplement. He sips on his suicide-shake and waves to his cute blonde neighbor, a frothy white mustache strewn above his smile as he cheerfully says to himself: “So long, girl next door. Hope they find my body before the smell becomes a problem for you.”
Needless to say, I was instantly hooked.
Wood plays Ryan, a guy in his late 20s who, as clearly indicated by his suicide attempt at the beginning of the episode, seems to have exhausted all possible sources of motivation and happiness within his life. After botching his career as a lawyer – a profession pushed upon him by his father – his sister Kristen (Dorian Brown) found him a job working in contract administration at her hospital – a job she forcefully pushes upon him at a hospital she begrudgingly works at as an OB/GYN. Put simply: Ryan is everybody’s “bitch” – pun intended. So who better to help him “grow a pair” than his neighbor Jenna’s (Fiona Gubelmann) dog, Wilfred (Jason Gann, who co-created and starred in the same role in the original Australian version of the show)?
In the midst of Ryan’s failed suicide attempt, Jenna drops Wilfred off at the house, saying she can’t watch him during the day because of her job. But unlike the rest of the normal world, Ryan doesn’t see a normal dog. For Ryan, Wilfred is a full-grown Australian man in a dog suit whose passions include Matt Damon movies and smoking weed out of his homemade Gatorade-bottle-bong. I mean, when put it like that, how can something like that go wrong?
And the concept surely doesn’t disappoint. Of course seeing a vulgar Australian in a dog suit humping the leg of a waitress (among other moments of similar absurdity) will always be funny; but it’s the frequent use of comedic irony with the role of dog and master perpetually in flux that truly guides us toward the underlying themes of the show (as well as provide a solid source of surprisingly clever humor).
Wilfred acts as a “spirit guide” of sorts for Ryan, a companion who has entered his life in order to free Ryan from the constraints of his everyday life. As the show clearly alludes, Ryan is no better than a domesticated pet: “Aren’t you tired of doing what everyone wants you to do?” Wilfred tells Ryan. “Maybe it’s time you quit playing ball with them, and play ball with me.” These references continue throughout the episode, reaching their most transparent toward the end of the episode when Ryan’s sister tells him to “beg” for his job at the hospital (which he likely lost after sleeping through his first day because he had been smoking weed with Wilfred).
In this sense, the show addresses a certain degree of existentialism buried within all the absurdity. Psychologists and philosophers have frequently examined the question, “what differentiates us from other animals?” And Wilfred seems to suggest that at the end of the day, we’re all animals in one sense or another. From a Freudian perspective, it’s as though Wood attempts to deal with his own domestication by personifying his own id within his neighbor’s dog. Seems like a pretty deep concept for a show that at one point features a dude dressed as a dog shitting in a boot.
With such existentialist themes buried so deep within a comedy of vulgar absurdity, the question really becomes which direction the show will choose to go from here? It’s not as though the farcical nature of the comedy doesn’t hold up and entertain on its own – there are numerous everyday-dog-activities that, when acted out by a man in a dog suit, prove thoroughly entertaining. But the show also offers such cynically satirical capabilities through its themes that if the writers were to abandon this element in favor of the former, I fear the show will far underachieve its potential. By the end of the series premiere , I got the impression that the writers are still (at least a little) unsure which direction they will go from here. “How will this end?” Ryan asks Wilfred as they sit on the porch. “I don’t know,” Wilfred says, “But aren’t you glad I’m here?” And to my slight surprise, yeah, I think I’m glad he’s here, too.