“Wilfred” was originally an Australian series that received $1.5 million of government money even though — or perhaps because — it was “peppered with profanity, full-frontal nudity and jokes about rape.” Now Jason Gann, the creator and star of the original, has brought his show to FX, where he once again plays the titular character, a dog described as “part Labrador retriever and part Russell Crowe on a bender.”
“Wilfred” also stars Elijah Wood as Ryan, a troubled young man whose failed suicide attempt coincides with Wilfred’s arrival next door. Due to Ryan’s peculiar mental state, he sees Wilfred as a surly Australian man in a dog suit rather than the ordinary canine belonging to Jenna (a bubbly Fiona Gubelman), the literal girl next door and Ryan’s love interest. It’s a simple enough conceit, but the execution is darker and stranger than any other comedy on TV — and that includes “Wilfred’s” schedule-mate “Louie,” also debuting Thursday.
The heart of “Wilfred” is the interaction between meek, depressed man-child Ryan and Wilfred, the barely-tame animal acting on instinct. I’m not exactly a fan of Elijah Wood, and I’ve frequently spoken out against weak male protagonists (I hate almost all Woody Allen movies), but Wood’s Ryan is nicely counterbalanced by Wilfred, who’s hell-bent on making Ryan embrace life and act like an empowered adult — often at the cost of Ryan’s dignity and physical well-being.
It’s Gann’s portrayal of the foul-mouthed, pot-smoking dog that truly makes “Wilfred” compelling. The show — adapted for an American audience by David Zuckerman (“Family Guy,” ” American Dad,” ‘King of the Hill”) — never explains or dwells on exactly what Wilfred is or how Ryan sees him as Gann’s ruthless man-dog. Wilfred can’t be a strict manifestation of Ryan’s id, because Wilfred is privy to secrets in Jenna’s life that Ryan couldn’t otherwise know. But he also can’t be just a dog who speaks in Ryan’s view of the world, because there are plot points that depend on Wilfred’s ability to read and use a computer.
Three episodes in, Wilfred is neither wholly canine nor solely in Ryan’s imagination: what he is is the truest archetype of the trickster character on television. Wilfred is by turns lovable, destructive, cunning, and cruel, but he’s also susceptible to the most common habits of a dog (digging holes, getting tricked into going to the vet). And the fact that “Wilfred” never addresses these complexities is one of the show’s finest qualities. It would be easy to show cuts of other characters watching Ryan talking to an actual dog in order to get laughs, but “Wilfred” never does that. It doesn’t take the easy way out.
Although there are some smartly-written exchanges good for the occasional chuckle (Ryan chastises Wilfred for quoting Dune at one point), viewers expecting a laugh-heavy sitcom will likely be surprised and turned off by the show’s dark tone. And though I’m intrigued by the complexities of Gann’s character, I’m not entirely sold on “Wilfred” just yet, either. But I’ll be watching nonetheless: “Wilfred” is too mind-bendingly strange to ignore.
“Wilfred” debuts Thursday, June 23rd, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on FX.