Contains Spoilers For Wilfred Season 1
I was recently introduced to this singular work by a relative. For the uninitiated, it’s an odd but uplifting tale about a burnt-out ex-lawyer and his pet dementia… I mean, dog.
It’s a strange show that blends crude toilet humor with occasional moments of authentic human drama. The first episode opens with the protagonist (Ryan)’s suicide attempt. His overdose fails to have the desired effect, but, luckily for us viewers, does result in a psychotic break.
Henceforth he sees the neighbor’s dog, Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit. Much of the show’s appeal and humor is born of seeing a human react to life in true canine fashion. Watching Wilfred drink out of the toilet or chase a laser pointer makes for extremely effective physical comedy, although it does have the potential to become tiresome.
Luckily the humor is balanced out by the series’ deeper themes of mental illness, self-perception, and masculinity.
It’s interesting that so much of the show focuses on Wilfred’s virility and Ryan’s sense of inadequacy as a man. Played by the elfin Elijah Wood, Ryan is almost overshadowed by the exuberant physical presence of Jason Gann (Wilfred). Much of Ryan’s unacknowledged anxieties focus on the accomplishments of men he perceives as more masculine, specifically Jenna’s boyfriend Drew. Jenna is Wilfred’s owner and Ryan’s love interest in the first season. So it makes sense that he would feel overwhelmed by her brashly athletic lover, Drew.
During one of the earlier episodes, Wilfred becomes so demoralized by Drew’s presence that he loses his sexual appetite. He regains it only after Ryan manages to outmaneuver Drew in a Machiavellian game of ping-pong. His renewed virility is a manifestation of Ryan’s rare triumph over another man.
But generally, the show focuses less on these triumphs than on his shortcomings. Ryan is a man who wants to shrug off other people’s expectations and live his own life, but he often lacks sufficient backbone to do so. This is where Wilfred comes in. Part Alpha-male, part externalized inner-child, he prods, bullies and coerces Ryan into overcoming his inhibitions. At first, Wilfred fulfills his role as man’s best friend.
As the series progresses, however, he takes on a darker role. His advice becomes less sound and his actions just as likely to lead Ryan into danger as to help him. Despite his apparent devotion to Ryan, there’s a strong hint of condescension in his interactions with him. At times, this condescension spills into the realm of hostility.
It soon becomes clear that he is the embodiment of Ryan’s deteriorating mental state.
It’s suggested that Ryan, in an attempt to maintain some control, has subconsciously compartmentalized his growing instability and manifested it as this other being, Wilfred. While he is aware that others see Wilfred as a normal dog, he readily accepts his own skewed perception of him. This acceptance is just one danger sign. There are others.
At one point, Wilfred refers to himself as God. This occurs in an episode in which Ryan (with Wilfred in tow) volunteers at a hospice. He soon becomes convinced that not only can Wilfred sense the impending death of the patients, but is also the cause of it. When confronted, Wilfred eagerly agrees with this assessment. He even goes so far as to claim to be God. Since Wilfred is simply an aspect of Ryan, his delusions of Godhood are Ryan’s delusions.
Many of Ryan’s other issues center around his lack of identity outside other peoples’ expectations of him. Wilfred cannot fully liberate him of his need to please others, and Ryan soon becomes enslaved to fulfilling Wilfred’s wants as well. The balance of power constantly shifts between the two of them, Ryan struggling all the while to maintain some sort of equilibrium.
More troubling are Wilfred’s frequent attempts to cause Ryan serious harm or injury. Since Wilfred the dog is incapable of this, it’s clear that Ryan is doing these things to himself while in a fugue state. It’s a rare comedy show that can make you laugh even as it addresses such weighty subject matter.
Wilfred is an intelligent show which sometimes struggles to resonate with all the members of its audience. Those who enjoy its crude, blokish humor might not relish the forays into existential questions of self. I prefer to think of the humor as a kind of costume. It’s not the fur suit that matters, but what’s wearing it.