“Wilfred” Review: “Happiness” and the series as a whole

“Wilfred” ended its series run tonight, and television will be a little more boring in its absence.

It was never a perfect show, often stuck trying to figure out its overall tone, marrying short-term plots to longer-arcing narratives, and generally spinning its wheels at times as the show entered later seasons. As a viewer, I came and went, missing large chunks of the second and third seasons with little to no adverse effect. In a strange way, that turned out to be a strength rather than a weakness. Because even though tonight’s series finale answered what the titular character was, it purposely left his meaning as clouded as ever. Which is perfect.

Look, I get it: “Wilfred” isn’t a show for everyone. But for anyone who sought concrete answers to why the show’s protagonist Ryan saw Wilfred as a man in a dog suit while everyone else saw him merely as an animal, I can’t imagine tonight’s finale would be satisfactory. But that’s on those viewers, not the show. Literally no finale could have answered that mystery in a satisfactory manner, because investigating Wilfred’s identity was the entire point of the show. In investigating Wilfred, Ryan was investigating his owned traumatized psyche, and “Wilfred” as a whole was investigating the ways we as people incorporate trauma into our everyday existence.

wilfred-fx-550×366.jpgAs with most series finales, tonight’s last “Wilfred” openly parrots the series premiere, with Ryan once again concocting a suicide cocktail to deal with the death of Wilfred and the loss of Jenna, whose all-too-brief relationship with Ryan ended with the life of her dog. Over the course of the final half-hour, we learn certain facts, but “Wilfred” never attempts to connect the dots except in the most cursory of manners. It’s tempting to come up with some overarching throughline that explains everything that’s happened over the past four seasons, but I’m not sure there’s supposed to be such a line in the first place. That’s what makes the show so thrilling, despite its shortcomings: Few shows in the past few years have so resolutely resisted singular interpretation, making the very interrogation of its content the true point of its existence.

Just as Wilfred frustrated Ryan, “Wilfred” frustrated the audience. This final season’s plot involving a long-lost cult and trickster dog deities was completely leveled by the banal explanation: Ryan’s true father was behind a cult that worshipped canine dieties, itself a byproduct of the type of mental illness prevalent in both Ryan’s mother and Ryan himself. Ryan never consciously knew that Henry wasn’t his fault, but it’s extremely tempting to imagine that seeing Jenna’s dog in the pilot triggered suppressed memories of his time in the cult, which essentially set the entire show in motion.

But again, it’s less important why any of this happened than what effect it actually had on Ryan’s life. So while some might want to draw up conspiracy boards that display how everything is connected, what consistently amazed me about “Wilfred” was the way it demonstrated how the simple act of engaging with the world can be its own form of bravery.

The final season spent a great deal of time dealing with perspective, and how perspective defines reality, and what is actually present is less vital that how that perception affects the viewer’s mindset. Ryan essentially created a canine Tyler Durden, but that Tyler also saw Bear as a lascivious figure inside a bear costume, and when the camera pulled back to reveal a “real” dog lying dead besides a devastated Ryan, it was a further reminder how the camera itself couldn’t be trusted in this show. The hazy edges of the camera often called attention to themselves, simultaneously drawing our eye to the center of frame but also making us wonder what was being obscured. Wilfred was a product of Ryan’s imagination, but “Wilfred” also argues that the world around us is only as real as we allow ourselves it to be.

I’m very glad I never had to review this show on a weekly basis, but I’m even more glad that I watched the final season essentially in three sittings, with the final one encompassing the final six episodes. There’s a cumulative power to those episodes, but binge-watching “Wilfred” also allows your mind time to luxuriate within the weird walls of this show. Its singular nature made for an odd viewing experience back when I would watch it weekly, with its tone, attitude, and philosophical concerns so at odds with everything else that its unique frequency had little room to travel inside my brain. But dipping into a three-hour session was like spending time inside a David Lynch film, with the internal logic eventually making its own warped sense and allowing me to not only make connections but simply revel in the show’s almost increasing calm analysis of Ryan’s mania.

What to make of that final image of Ryan smiling on the beach? That’s all in the eye of the beholder, much as whatever Ryan sees in door to the basement before heading to the beach. At the end of season one, it seemed as if the basement had never existed. Eventually, we learned someone (probably him) boarded it up. The basement existed and didn’t exist all at once. It was Schrödinger’s Basement, and “Wilfred” was the equivalent of Schrödinger’s Show. By refusing to be one thing, it could be all things. The fact that fifty people will have fifty interpretations of the series is a feature, not a bug. It’s an inkblot that played over four darkly comic, deeply weird seasons.

I can easily see this as a show that grows in stature over time. It will perhaps never be seminal, but plenty of people will be drawn to its vibe, and its relatively small run (forty-nine half-hour episodes) will encourage those that lock into early installments to stick through the entire series. Again, it won’t appeal to everyone, but it doesn’t have to do so. As one of the byproducts of this ever-fractured television landscape, “Wilfred” proves that it’s possible to stick to your own muse and follow it where it leads. Ryan followed Wilfred to the end, and while he ended the series alone, he’s perhaps ready for the first time to actually be a citizen of the world. He might have created an imaginary dog to reach that point. But he did that in lieu of killing himself. Was that crazy? Or was that the bravest thing Ryan ever did?

In “Wilfred,” it was both. Always both.

And who among us can say we’ve never done something crazy in the attempt to stay sane?