Loving the shows the Emmys ignore: Wilfred

Emmy week continues with another under-viewed, under-appreciated, Emmy-ignored comedy.

What: Wilfred

Network: FX/FXX

Number of Seasons/Episodes: 3/39

Previous Emmy Consideration: None

Most Deserves Notice For: Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actor (Comedy) for Elijah Wood, Outstanding Supporting Actor (Comedy) for Jason Gann, Outstanding Writing (Comedy), and at the Creative Arts Emmys, Outstanding Guest Actress (Comedy) for Mary Steenburgen, Outstanding Multi-Camera Editing (Comedy), Outstanding Music Composition (Series)

What is it?

An Australian import, Wilfred follows Ryan Newman (Elijah Wood), a thirty-ish lawyer whose life falls apart and then he starts talking to his neighbor’s dog, Wilfred (Jason Gann), and the dog starts talking back.

wilfred2Hand’s down, Wilfred is the weirdest, darkest comedy on television. I hesitate at times to even call it comedy, not only because of the show’s incorporation of mental illness, suicide and rampant drug abuse in multiple forms, but also because of its heavily serialized nature. But it follows the three-camera sitcom format, and out of that darkness comes some genuine and genuinely good comedy, so we’ll stick with calling it a situational comedy. A very, very, very black situational comedy. Created by Gann as a short film in 2001, Wilfred was imported to the US in 2010 after a successful two-season run in Gann’s native Australia (where he’s a big deal comedian). Here in the US Wilfred is one of FX’s highest-rated shows, which still means that practically no one is watching it.

wilfred-fx-tv-show2The show starts with Ryan’s suicide attempt and revolves around the question of whether or not Ryan is crazy (his family has a history of mental illness), or if he’s just suffering some kind of temporary psychosis, or if maybe he’s experiencing something more in the magical realism vein. A lot of time is spent pondering if Ryan is crazy or not, and if Wilfred is real or not, but I think the real question is whether or not Wilfred’s presence in Ryan’s life is harmful. The obvious answer is YES, especially after the season three finale, but much of the time Wilfred’s schemes end up pushing Ryan along on a path of greater independence and assuredness. Is Wilfred just the result of a psychosis or is he the manifestation of Ryan’s desire to be a different person, his own doggie Tyler Durden?

What makes Wilfred work so well is the chemistry between Wood and Gann, and also everyone’s total commitment to the talking dog gimmick. Like Ryan, we see Wilfred as a man in a dog suit, but every other actor treats Wilfred as if he was a real dog, belly rubs and all. And Wilfred has a Wilfred in the form of Bear, a giant, disgusting teddy bear that Wilfred talks to but is seen only as a defiled stuffed animal by everyone else. It’s farcical but it’s played so straight that the absurdity becomes the engine for most of the humor, especially as the series evolves and Ryan starts spending entirely too much time with his neighbor’s dog.

gubelmannwilfred-570x425Wood and Gann both give pretty extraordinary performances, not only for their commitment to the bit but also Gann’s commitment to Wilfred’s physical dogginess and his emotional awfulness, as well as the emotional depth of Wood’s performance as Ryan. Sometimes he’s not very likeable, but Ryan is always knowable, even at his lowest points. Gann gets to be the crazy fun one while Wood is the straight man, but Ryan is never boring in contrast. Wilfred is the kind of show that I want to recommend outright but I know it’s not for everyone. Still, it’s worth giving it a shot if you have a taste for the dark or different.

When did you fall in love?

Season 1, episode 4—the bestiality episode. Ryan leaves Wilfred in a doggy daycare where Daryl (Ed Helms, proving The Office never really did right by him) does something unspeakable to Wilfred. It’s also the episode where Wilfred meets Bear, putting one of the show’s most depraved elements right next to one of its most absurd. It’s charming in a dark, disturbed kind of way.

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2 thoughts on “Loving the shows the Emmys ignore: Wilfred

  1. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about Wilfred and I assumed it was because viewers were too traumatised to speak of it. (Case in point – the best episode is referenced as, ‘the bestiality episode.’ Imagine that in Friends, ‘The One with the Bestiality.’) I wonder if it will seem tame in a few years, but I imagine it will retain it’s value based on, as you say, how strange it feels even to categorise it as a comedy sometimes.

  2. Pingback: Winter Movie Preview: January 2014 | Cinesnark

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