TV Season Premiere Review: Wilfred

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Bizarrely and for unexplained reasons FX decided to air the season two premiere of Wilfred last Thursday, with little fanfare and a full week before the premieres of the rest of the shows in the big Thursday night summer comedy block the network is launching this coming week.

They dubbed it a “special preview episode” of Wilfred but it was in every way a season premiere as it mostly dealt with resolving the multiple cliffhangers introduced in the season one finale.

What the episode most definitely did not do was in any way try to reach out to new viewers by making the show less weird or less dark. If anything the episode, entitled “Progress,” just ratcheted up the show’s metaphysical mindfuckery, vulgarity, and darkness as well as pretty much openly declaring that the central mystery of what the hell Wilfred actually is will never be resolved.

The season one finale left us with several cliffhangers, all of which had the potential to fundamentally alter the direction the series would go in the future. Ryan’s (Elijah Wood’s) unrequited love and next door neighbor Jenna was leaving with her douchey boyfriend played by Chris Klein.

Wilfred, while in his “real dog” manifestation, had been hit by a car and due to a complicated set of circumstances it was entirely Ryan’s fault. In addition Ryan seemed to be turning into an “evil lawyer” again, the very fate he had been trying to avoid with his suicide attempt that started the series. Most disturbingly, in the final scene of the season when Ryan tried to go down to the basement where he’d spent the entire first season smoking pot and watching Matt Damon movies with Wilfred, he found that the basement was no longer there and the door instead led to a small closet.

These various cliffhangers are of course all in addition to the ongoing mystery of Wilfred’s real nature. For those not familiar with the show’s premise: Essentially Wilfred is the story of Ryan (played by Elijah Wood) and Wilfred, his next door neighbor Jenna’s dog. The trouble is while almost all of the other characters in the show’s universe see Wilfred as a normal dog, Ryan instead sees him as a man (played by Australian actor Jason Gann, reprising his role from the original Australian TV version of show which he created and wrote) in a dog suit. Wilfred smokes cigarettes and copious amounts of marijuana and has an extreme, outsize personality. He’s rash, impulsive, and unpredictable, but mostly he’s manipulative, especially of Ryan.

There is of course precedent for this sort of thing in fiction, Calvin and Hobbes for instance, but what sets Wilfred apart is the way the series explores the situation from every conceivable angle: In various episodes it seems like Wilfred is a prolonged hallucination on Ryan’s part, like he’s a real entity that other people have seen before, like he’s a manifestation of the evil part of Ryan’s personality, like he’s a manifestation of the good part of Ryan’s personality etc. etc. Whether or not you like the show depends largely on how much tolerance you have for such a malleable, never fully explained premise. And the season two premiere pretty much makes it clear that those looking for a final resolution to the mystery of Wilfred’s true nature will ultimately be disappointed.

The  premiere deals immediately and directly with the huge mess created by all the unresolved threads in the season one finale. It opens with Ryan in a mental institution, seemingly there to deal with the fallout from his guilt over what happened to Wilfred and the feeling that he’s going crazy (understandably perhaps) because the basement where he spent the first season getting high with his neighbor’s dog apparently never existed. His therapist is played by Robin Williams. (Wilfred gets an amazing number of high-profile guest stars for a low-rated cable comedy.)

The scenes in the mental institution are interspersed with what appear to be dream sequences in which Ryan is in the middle of some sort of high-level business meeting filled with another group of prominent guest stars including Steven Weber and Rob Riggle.

The mental institution setting leads to the darkest and perhaps best scene of the episode. Jenna brings Wilfred to visit Ryan there. In a brief bit of toying with the audience, Jenna’s arrival is filmed so that she’s behind a hedge and you only see the top half of her body and the music and editing seem designed to engender some hope that when Wilfred emerges he’ll simply be a dog. It’s a neat little trick, but regular viewers know it’s extremely unlikely the show will ever let Ryan off that easy. When Jenna and Wilfred emerge from behind the hedge Wilfred is again Jason Gann in a dog suit, in a wheelchair and arm sling and looking pissed off.

Ryan and Wilfred go off by themselves and Wilfred again goes into his master manipulator mode, piling the guilt on Ryan for his injuries. At one point, in an almost Lost like tweak of the audience Wilfred even offers to tell Ryan the true secret of what he really is, what’s going on etc. and Ryan says he doesn’t even want to hear it, assuming it will be another lie or manipulation.

Finally, Ryan says he thinks Wilfred is faking his injuries. Ryan taunts Wilfred with a frisbee, trying to get Wilfred’s instinct to take over so he jumps out of the wheelchair and chases the frisbee. Instead, Wilfred’s lunging for the frisbee simply makes the wheelchair fall over at which point Ryan starts kicking him and giving him cigarette burns while Wilfred plaintively continues to call for the frisbee. The degree to which you find a scene that we’re led to believe at least on some level of reality represents a crazy person attacking an already injured dog entertaining or funny probably determines to what degree you’ll be on board with Wilfred as a whole.

But this scene merely begins another big reality-reversal: it’s not the mental institution scenes that are “real” but the business meeting scenes. The reality starts to shift in a hilarious scene with the Robin Williams therapist character. He shows Ryan pictures of Wilfred’s injuries and says again and again “It’s not your fault.”

I was already cracking up at this point because “Good Will Hunting” is such a hacky, overrated but somehow fun-to-quote-from movie, but it got even funnier when Ryan himself started realizing that it was quote from the movie and a reference to Williams’s character in it, also making a nice callback to Wilfred’s obsession with Matt Damon movies in the first season.

This is the point at which Ryan starts to realize he really is in the business meeting and not the mental institution. He then excuses himself from the meeting and runs home, rushing immediately to the door that once opened to the basement but in the season one finale only opened into a closet. He opens the door to the closet but this time starts breaking apart the drywall at the back of it with a hammer and finds that the basement is there again, just as he remembers it.

He then rushes to the file cabinet that supposedly contains Wilfred’s will, the ostensible reason he was trying to go down to the basement in the season one finale. He does find what appears to be the will but all of the pages are blank except for the final one which says simply “Keep Digging.” That’s pretty much a perfect motto for this show, which seems to really be hitting its stride right now with this confident, assured premiere; a premiere that reinforces the central premise of the show while also suggesting a bunch of weird new directions the show could go with it.

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