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|Written by C.W. Mimms|
|Wednesday, 20 June 2012 00:01|
Wilfred is back, and I feel a little bit like Shelley Duvall in The Shining when Jack Nicholson sticks his face through the bathroom door and says, "Here's Johnny!" I'm frightened to see where this leads. However, I'm too involved to quit watching now.
Wilfred is a dark psychological comedy and probably the best nihilism since Fight Club; it airs on FX and returns for a second season in June. The show stars Elijah Wood as Ryan Newman, a failed lawyer who enjoys smoking marajuana. David Zuckerman adapted the show for an American audience from the original Australian series with the same name. The premise: Ryan goes crazy. Simple, sure, but the show is so well written, well-crafted, well-cast, well-everything, that I watched it multiple times, something I rarely do. So I ask, "Why am I drawn to this show so much?"
The main character is insane, nihilistic, apathetic, and suicidal. He's Mark Twain meets David Berkowitz. He talks to his neighbor's dog, ignores his family, forgets about work, and steals. In one episode, he may or may not kill old people, depending on your interpretation of the show. No doubt, Ryan is crazy, but the show is more than a tale of slipping sanity. It's humorous social criticism yet not unapologetic satire like Family Guy or Modern Family. Wilfred contains carefully crafted sorrow for humanity, and despite the fact that the main character is, simply put, mopey, I still love him.
I think it's because he's perfect for his time. A lot has happened in the last 20 years on television. In the '90s, comfortable and secure inside our dot-com bubble, we liked our reality. Life was good. Couple this with a few writers' strikes and eureka, reality shows plastered our screens. But many people grew bored with the semi-scripted, forced drama. So to keep us around, reality TV got pregnant with documentary's baby and boom, the mockumentary swept America. We got to have our reality and eat it too with shows like Trailer Park Boys and The Office. The characters broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to us. We realized TV was neither fake nor real. We didn't turn to it for fact or fiction. We just wanted entertainment and personal connections with the characters. Then the recession hit in 2008, and as all good sociologists know (I'm not a sociologist), during times of economic decline, people turn to fiction for escapism.
We wanted scripted TV, but reality TV was long out of Pandora's Box. It tainted our views of television, and themockumentary made things worse. We couldn't go back to good old-fashioned scripted TV; it's simply too fake. So shows like Community were born, which are close to classic sitcoms, except for one integral difference that makes them palatable: meta-humor. The characters don't speak directly to you, but they do nudge you, wink at you as they tell their stories. In Community, the character Abed is a meta-vehicle. He constantly explains the theme of the show and points out intertextuality. Today's audience isn't more intelligent than the audience of the last 40 years; we just need different things from sitcoms. TV isn't just escapism or relaxation at the end of a workday anymore. We no longer hang our hats, pour some scotch, and zone out in front of the boob tube. Today, we expect a certain level of interactivity in TV. We want the show to acknowledge that we exist. That's why Wilfred is so great.
Wilfred is poignant, darkly satirical, frightening and funny, but it's more than just a half hour of lounging before dinner. It punches through time, from decades past when people invested more in family and belonged to their community. In the show, Ryan doesn't have a community. We never see his parents, his sister is bitchy at best, and his neighbors use and abuse him. He's an island, something we all feel at times. In a world where so many people feel dislocated, ignored, and abandoned, Wilfred shows us not that there is hope, but that things could get a whole lot worse if we let them.
To make the character of Wilfred, played by Jason Gann, mix the pooka from Harvey with Tyler Durden from Fight Club, toss in a heaping spoonful of Thurgood Jenkins from Half Baked and voilà: you have a six-foot-tall talking dog, who may or may not exist, aspires to reach rock bottom, and is sexually attracted to over-sized stuffed animals. Oh, and he smokes a ton of marijuana.
Wilfred brings humor to the show, cheering us up and telling us sad things are actually funny. When life is at its worst, we can still laugh. But Wilfred also acts as an agent of self-destruction and represents Ryan's suppressed sexual and violent nature. The duo create an oddly attractive dynamic.
Okay, so we have our two main characters, loveable bastards, but what really interests me about this show is itsthemes. At first, you think it's a story about chasing love because Ryan loves the girl next door. However, you soon realize that the girl next door only provides a plot thread anchored to darker, more cynical themes, and if you pay attention in the first three episodes you'll find the writers conveniently told you how to watch the show.
The first episode opens with a quote from Mark Twain: "Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination." As the quote fades the word happiness lingers on the screen. Then scene one begins, and Ryan attempts to kill himself, which sets the tone for the entire show. Shortly after his failed suicide, he meets Wilfred, who tells us he and Ryan are "one mind." He then coaxes Ryan into throwing a tennis ball for him, which Ryan says is "not just a tennis ball." So the writers give us a loose theme to look for (happiness), tell us Ryan and Wilfred are the same person, and ask us to dig for symbolism all in the first five minutes of the show. Ryan and his alter ego then go on to rob his neighbor and defecate in his boots. You can see my confliction in liking this person.
Episode two is about trust, and the "girl next door" story really begins. The writers shape how we watch the show in this episode as well. "Everything has to do with everything," Ryan says multiple times. So by episode three we have been told to watch for symbolism and that everything is connected. The writers then give us clues to where Ryan's psychosis began. A clock spins backward, and Ryan looks at his feet, but they have turned to baby feet. What happened in Ryan's childhood that caused his current mental state? It's mystery.
Ryan often delves into his past, and he's clearly a disturbed person. But we connect with Ryan on a very personal and frightening level from the beginning, unlike other shows where we gradually become acquainted with a group of characters, like in Friends, How I met Your Mother, or Seinfeld. In Wilfred, Ryan is our only hope of connection. We know the dog is fake, we quickly dislike his sister, and we never meet his parents. It is just Ryan in a world of strangers. His only connection is the dog next door, a manifestation of Ryan's isolation and fear, and when people live in isolation and fear, they get strange.
Perhaps the most difficult time in the season to like Ryan occurs in episode five. He volunteers at a hospice center, where Wilfred steals pharmaceutical drugs, smothers an old woman, and throws a nurse off a roof. Since we know Wilfred is Ryan, we have to accept that Ryan killed two people. The episode ends with Ryan and Wilfred hanging out in the basement as usual, and Wilfred flip-flopping back and forth: did he kill the old woman or did he not? This dialogue allows us to choose if we want to believe that Ryan killed people or just hallucinated that he killed people, like American Psycho. Also in this episode, Wilfred is the dominant personality, dwarfing Ryan, but the power struggle soon begins.
In episode six, Ryan fights back. He swats Wilfred with a newspaper. This is important because Ryan finally stands up to himself. We all want to quiet our inner voice, the one that drags us into the deep for no apparent reason. We all have a self-destructive side. I know I do, and if I could swat him with a newspaper I would. That's why I love Ryan. Yes, he's crazy and weak, but at times he gains momentous courage. It's difficult enough to stand up to our bosses or bill collectors, but it's next to impossible to take a stand against the person who harms us the most: the drug-addicted, hate-filled, self-destructive, anthropomorphic dog living in our heads. In this episode Ryan takes charge of his life and stands up to "the man," which everyone wanted to do in 2011. Just look at Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. The man in Wilfred isn't some nameless, faceless banker or Middle Eastern dictator though. In Wilfred, the man is each of us. Wilfred shows us that we can control our own lives without marching or protesting. All we need to do is stand up to our internal demons, the ones that drive us to drugs, to self-sabotage, and, yes, to break into our neighbor's house, steal his weed, and defecate in his boot.
In this episode, Ryan temporarily conquers his demon; he is no longer miserable, but he also no longer feels. So, his demon rises again. Wilfred poisons him, taking us back to the first episode when Ryan tried to kill himself. Ryan again faces his demon, but this time, instead of trying to dominate it, he confronts it.
He doesn't believe Wilfred would try to poison him. Essentially, Ryan can't accept that he tried to kill himself. But his demon won't let him forget it, so they come to blows and Wilfred's Lego-meth lab goes up in chemical smoke. However, here Ryan begins to change and accept himself. Instead of letting his demon die, he saves him, dragging Wilfred to safety. Ryan realizes that without a personal demon, he has no fear, and no drive.
From beginning to end, season one of Wilfred is an adventure through disassociated reality. Poor Ryan is lost inside his own head. We connect to the show because we all sometimes feel this way. We sit on the train, staring at the gum stuck on the ground instead of talking to the people next to us. We may smile on the street but we never chat with strangers. We shuffle about and try not to bump into each other, and meanwhile our emotions begin to bottle up inside us. That's what communities are for; we use them as release, and when we are cut off from that release we get a little crazy. Hopefully, we don't all react like Ryan and talk to the dog next door and smother old people to death.
C.W. Mimms is medium-sized human and freelance writer living Portland, Oregon. He enjoys writing short stories, comics, and essays but will manufacture sentences about anything if there's money involved. Prior to moving to Oregon, he spent five years working and traveling through Japan, Korea, and Thailand. He loves to read, write, run, swim, and ski. Follow him on Twitter [at] corymimms, and check out his other work here.
Tags: adventure, beat away the darkness with a newspaper, community, destruction, elijah wood, emptiness, failed lawyers, frodo, fx, gerontricide, humor, isolation, marijuana, meta, self sabotage, tv, wilfred