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When "Wilfred" debuted on FX last summer, the premise smacked of novelty: a simple mutt to the rest of the world appears as a manipulative, bong-puffing Australian in a cheesy dog costume to a troubled young lawyer.
The hipster "Harvey" initially seemed as potentially substantial as a giant invisible rabbit. But “Wilfred” evolved into a seriocomic, at-times emotionally wrenching exploration of identity and depression – all while providing plenty of laughs, tawdry, cheap and dark.
With the series second season finale set for Thursday, Wilfred the dog (or is he a man?) is having his day.
The talking-canine gimmick aside, the rest of the set-up for "Wilfred" doesn't exactly scream “comedy.” The show debuted with disillusioned lawyer Ryan (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy star Elijah Wood) failing at suicide. The latest season began with Ryan in a mental institution following a breakdown long in the making. The fear, guilt and angst ridden thirtysomething is unable to take control of his life and seize much pleasure. His father, an unseen presence who looms as large as Wilfred, bullied him into joining him in the law. He feels abandoned by his mother, a loopy artist (Mary Steenburgen) dumped in a sanitarium by his father when Ryan was a boy.
Wilfred (Jason Gann) lives next door with pretty, perky – and betrothed – Jenna, Ryan's unrequited crush. He serves as Ryan's furry Id, constantly burying him in trouble, before digging him up and dragging him out, though never unsullied. Wilfred is an ambiguous character – we’re never clear on whether he’s a help or hindrance to Ryan, a cause or symptom of his downfall – or a necessary element in piecing back together the life of man struggling to be his own best friend.
Gann, who created and starred in the original Australian TV version of “Wilfred,” brings great timing that goes beyond the comic as his dog/man veers from bacchanalian tempter to devious troublemaker to potential savior with the wag of the tail. Wood’s over-sized, endlessly expressive eyes remain his greatest asset. The peepers of Wood’s Ryan Newman (read: “new man”) variously convey helplessness, pain, exasperation and a modicum of hope, as his quest for happiness is dogged by an emotional Gollum-like internal battle.
The darkly comic second season took us deeper into the exploration of who – or what –Wilfred is and his purpose. From Wilfred and his stuffed teddy bear/lover (known simply as “Bear”) busting Ryan out of the mental institution to Wilfred violently sabotaging Ryan’s drug-induced “vision quest” with a Native American guide, the show turned more dreamlike and eerie, even as the stakes grew clearer and more serious in what passes for “real” life.
Last we saw, Ryan knocked on the door of Amanda, the woman he dumped to spare her from his mental mess, the one person who seems to love him for who he is, his best shot at eking out a normal, modestly content life. Thursday will tell whether Wilfred ruins the moment or finally lets Ryan have a day of his own.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.