Film and TV

Wilfred: "Happiness"

When an adult human being experiences animal-related hallucinations (David Berkowitz, Jimmy Stewart in Harvey), it's usually a sign of serious mental illness. Or they're Dr. Doolittle, but we're betting on the crazy.

Surely this is the case with Ryan (Eljah Wood), who - as Wilfred begins - is unsuccessfully trying to kill himself. His attempts are interrupted by a surprise visit from his cute new neighbor Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) and, Wilfred (Jason Gann). Wilfred appears as a normal canine to everyone but Ryan, to whom he takes on the countenance of a grown Australian man in a dog suit.

Jenna asks Ryan if he can watch Wilfred for the day, and in the course of the next several hours, our troubled protagonist will take his first steps toward truly learning what it is to be a man. From a dog.

To give you an idea where the show's head is, it opens with a quote from Mark Twain: "Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination." To punctuate this, we meet Ryan, whose best response to an unfulfilled life spent hiding from conflict and responsibility is to try and kill himself. Seems reasonable. I was reminded of comedian Marc Maron's bit about how the difference between depression and disappointment is your level of committment.

When Jenna brings Wilfred over, Ryan naturally assumes he's suffering side effects from the suicide meds. No such luck (it turns out his OB-GYN sister prescribed him sugar pills). While attempting to deal with the presence of a man in a dog suit in his house, Ryan goes through the motions of getting ready for the new job his sister obtained for him (office administrator or some such, it doesn't matter). Wilfred smells the truth about Ryan, like he does the sour milk in the fridge, that the guy is seriously unhappy. We also learn Ryan used to be a lawyer. Why ever could he be depressed?

You know those shows that try to cram a ton of plot into a limited time frame? Yeah, Wilfred doesn't do that. Ryan's day runs the gamut from taking Wilfred for a walk to keeping him from humping a waitress' leg to breaking into his asshole neighbor Spencer's house to pilfer his pot stash and shit in his footwear. Indeed, the funniest moment of last night's premiere may have been Wilfred exhorting Ryan: "For once in your life, be a man and shit in that boot!"

Wilfred is Ryan's id, unbound. It's easy for him to nuzzle a woman's breasts, or encourage Ryan to raid their obnoxious neighbor's homegrown operation. What's more difficult for Ryan - aside from dealing with an anthropomorphic dog as his new friend - is figuring out what he really wants to do with his life.

Of course, Wilfred is a dog, and so does doggy things: digging holes because he misses his master, aggressively pursuing his favorite tennis ball, but he also chastises Ryan for his poorly written suicide note and manipulates him into taking bong hits and helping him commit B&E.

Meanwhile, Ryan's sister treats "him" like a dog, ordering him to beg for his job, for example.

I admit, I laughed several times during Wilfred's pilot episode. How much of that was the result of seeing a guy in a dog suit hump a giant teddy bear or quote Dune and The Godfather, Part 2 after a brutal couple of weeks...well, I guess we'll find out. The standard sitcom tropes are offset a bit by the vulgarity and drug use, which I certainly don't have a problem with, though one suspects there's only so far Gann and Adam Zwar (adapting the original Australian series for FX) can take the story. For now, it's enough for me to have seen Frodo ordered to defecate in a boot.

At episode's end, we realize Ryan still has a long way to go. For no sooner has he taken the first steps to independence from his sister and proclaimed his trust in Wilfred than we see the man-dog strategically placing Ryan's wallet under Spencer's broken window.

Forgive us, but that seems like more of a cat thing.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar