I understand why so many people are averse to watching FX’s “Wilfred,” which premieres tonight as a “special preview episode” even though it’s pretty much essentially viewing in terms of the program’s overall narrative. This special episode works as a standalone, but works far better as a bridge between the truly odd cliffhanger that ended the show’s first season and the nuttiness that ensues thereafter. I checked out after a few episodes in Season 1, but managed to catch the final two after several critics notes that the show honed its craft and mastered its tone. Rather than trying to simply mine absurdity for laughs, the show indulged its darker side with each passing week, turning into something akin to an existential horror show by the end of the first season.
So yes, it’s not exactly a user-friendly show. And quite frankly, watching the three episodes made available by FX for review in a single sitting was quite exhausting. Much like another FX comedy, “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” the tone of “Wilfred” is such that it’s best digested in small morsels. I found myself slightly weary of the show’s modus operandi by the end of the third installment, but I was never for a second bored. The premise of the show–one man sees a dog as a human in a dog suit, while the rest of the world sees him only as an animal–seems to have an innately short shelf life. But solving the mystery of Wilfred’s existence isn’t the show’s primary storytelling aim. Rather, much like “Fight Club,” the show is about what happens when modern-day pressures cause a person’s brain to lose its grip on reality itself. The show isn’t about Wilfred’s existence so much as Ryan’s perspective.
The unreliable narrator is a trope primarily in books or film, and is rarely employed in the medium of television. The reasons are fairly obvious: while one can spend a few hours at the cinema being tricked by the protagonist of “Memento,” they might not want to follow the path of unreliable bread crumbs over the course of several years. Yet “Wilfred” makes Ryan’s potentially fractured worldview into a driver for stories about dealing with everyday problems through unorthodox solutions. Tonight’s “special preview” finds Ryan (played by Elijah Wood, doing strong, thankless work opposite Jason Gann’s scene-stealing performance as the titular character) dealing with the injury sustained to Wilfred in the season one finale. How he copes with this problem is one of the premiere’s delights, as it throws us into as much confusion as Ryan. We the audience can only see the world through Ryan’s perspective, and as such we root for him to, in the words of Wilfred, “keep digging” in order to locate the source of his problems.
Actually solving the problem would give away the game, as it were, to “Wilfred.” Those looking for a resolution to this conundrum aren’t watching the show in the wrong manner, but may find more joy in the way that the program using Wilfred to question everyday assumptions through unusual lines of inquiry. Here’s a program that names its episodes after quotes from inventors, scientists, philosophers, and other great thinkers. It’s a show with IDEAS in capital letters on its mind, with the answers to the problems it proposes less important than the act of expressing the questions in the first place.
If the first season was largely homebound, the second season finds Ryan with new employment, working as a lawyer for a medical research facility with Stephen Weber as the CEO and “Smallville”’s Allison Mack as a research scientist with a brain for medicine and a body…well, other biological functions. Weber and Mack both bring welcome energy to the show, even if Mack’s character seems to be steeped in some of the same tropes that Chloe Sullivan traversed in for so many years in Kansas. Still, this is “Wilfred”, so don’t expect either new character to be as upbeat and cleancut as their former fictional incarnations.
This isn’t easy entertainment, and there’s every chance that the show will ultimately run out of steam as it keeps poking and prodding Ryan without giving him or us any chance that he’s actually getting “better,” whatever the hell “better” means within the context of “Wilfred.” Most programs work by giving the audience a clear sense of the ultimate endgoal towards which it’s heading. With “Wilfred,” it’s unclear where the show is taking its characters. This would be a problem if the individual steps along the way were dull and meandering. But if we’re never any closer to truly understanding the true nature of Wilfred, that doesn’t make the weekly journey of “Wilfred” any less compelling. It’s a dark journey, one often intentionally off-putting. It’s Brechtian theatre slipped onto a cable network’s programming schedule in the dead of summer. It won’t be for everyone. It may not ever be for me by the end of this season. But for now, it’s a bitter tonic to help offset the sugary sweetness of so much television between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This show has bite.