Review: Wilfred Premiere “Happiness”

Television always requires us to suspend disbelief. Steve Buscemi and Paz de la Huerta are a believable couple? Sure. Zach Braff isn’t the world’s most annoying automaton? I guess I can buy that. Ad men can drink 40 litres of ethanol before breakfast and still competently do their jobs? But of course! Disbelief suspended, television set.

In a nice twist on that perspective mobius strip, Wilfred’s man child protagonist must suspend his own disbelief and reconcile his version of reality with that of everyone else around him. He thinks he sees something that isn’t there, that he can’t explain, that he wants to deny but can’t. And neither can we. The show operates on a realm of logic that both befuddles and delights in its absurdity – man in dog suit in place of actual dog. It’s an inspired premise and one which a lesser show might scramble to justify, but the pilot, which airs tonight on Channel Ten’s youth skewed Eleven, does little to address the whacko central conceit: why does Elijah Wood see a man in a dog suit where everyone else sees an innocuous pooch?. In a way it doesn’t need to. It’s a narrative black box which exists only to grease the narrative and in the end, I doubt we’ll ever find out why.

Wilfred opens with unexpected pathos for a what is essentially a surrealist buddy comedy; Ryan (Elijah Wood) is recovering from a botched suicide attempt when his neighbour asks him to watch her pet pooch Wilfred (Jason Gaan). In a drug-induced stupor (oh hi there Frodo Baggins on a Modor meth binge) Ryan agrees and inadvertently sets into motion his “new life” alongside his new best friend/life coach /bong buddy. The laughs aren’t particularly frequent here but that’s to be expected as the pilot toils with the majority of the expositional grunt work. There are the auxiliary characters – Ryan’s hard ass older sister, Kristen and his classically attractive neighbour and Wilfred’s owner, Jenna. There’s also the feeling out process to establish what is and isn’t possible (among the most notable: Wilfred has oppposable thumbs but no arms and people hear his speech as barking). The funniest moments come in the interplay between Ryan and Wilfred who amusingly shift power depending on who’s present. That and anything with dry humping. But between the weed jokes and crass visual gags (plush toy sex, dog on woman motorboating) lie some dense philosophical questions about instinct, nature and weirdly enough, mental health. Just look to the episode’s title or the pharmaceutical cocktail Ryan drinks in order to kill himself.

The laughs per minute will rise as we get a better handle on the characters and the writers flesh out the world Ryan and Wilfred inhabit. For now though, this is a promising debut worth following. B+

Best line unrelated to the plot: “You had a rough morning? Try prying twin boys out of a tight little Asian gal. She wasn’t Asian American, Ryan. She was real Asian.”

Wilfred airs tonight on Channel 10’s Eleven.