'Wilfred'/'Curb Your Enthusiasm

24 REV Curb Your Enthusiasm
Jessica Miglio/HBO

Ricky Gervais (left) guest stars on the eighth season of "Curb."

A darkly funny setup about a sick man and his hallucinations, coupled with Larry David's still-painful social skills, prove small-screen comedy is at its peak.

It takes no genius to surmise that the state of comedy on television is in robust health. But the arrival of Wilfred on FX and the eighth season of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm are like two enthusiastic exclamation points that hammer home the proof.

Based on an Australian series, Wilfred was adapted by David Zuckerman (King of the Hill, Family Guy) and centers on depressed lawyer Ryan (Elijah Wood), whose botched suicide attempt leads him to see his neighbor's dog as an oddly sweet and insightful but irascible Australian guy in a cheap dog suit, while everyone else just sees a dog. Wilfred (Jason Gann, who co-created the original series) gets thrown into Ryan's life when his owner, Ryan's neighbor Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), needs Ryan to watch him one day.

That day is Ryan's failed suicide. He gets some pills from his uptight doctor sister, Kristen (Dorian Brown). He takes them all. "Abusing those pills can lead to paranoia, hallucination, depression and much worse!" she tells Ryan, who then realizes his seeing a man in a dog suit is just a hallucination. Until Kristen tells him they were sugar pills.

The conceit is a great one. Ryan doesn't know why he's seeing Wilfred as an unshaven Australian in a dog suit, but the two of them have an immediate chemistry. Wilfred, it turns out, is part philosopher, part devious dog, part life coach. The two of them smoke a lot of pot at Ryan's, since Ryan quit his job and Jenna works. The series probably could have coasted on all the inherently funny situations that a bong-loving dog who loves Matt Damon movies could get into with a possibly schizophrenic neighbor. But Wilfred goes beyond that -- which is why there's more than a little hilarious genius in the series.

Wood is perfect as Ryan, struggling to find happiness and meaning in a world where his father called the shots -- even deciding Ryan should become a lawyer. Ryan is awkward, emotionally shackled, fearful of embracing life. Gann is superb as Wilfred, who wants to help Ryan grasp the joy in life and seize the day -- provided Ryan doesn't use him to get to Jenna. Oh, sure, Wilfred might sometimes muck up Ryan's life for no reason, but hey, he's a dog. A foul-mouthed, often hot-tempered dog who has his own bong, but still.

While all the philosophical, existential and surprisingly intimate moments of their friendship are the wonderfully surprising backbone to Wilfred, the hook is the absurdist situations and brilliant humor.

In one scene, Wilfred becomes friendly with a waitress at an outdoor restaurant -- fine, he's humping her leg -- and Ryan breaks it up. "Ryan, I like you, but you're a shit wingman," Wilfred says. In one episode, the two are on a walk when a motorcycle drives by and Wilfred takes off running after it, shouting, "I'll kill you!" In other random scenes, Wilfred pushes over a guy on a bike, does bad things to stuffed animals and delights, crazily, in the ocean, even though it causes Ryan to get a $300 fine. Again, the visual jokes are worth watching this series, plus it's almost impossible to get tired of watching a guy in a dog suit say stuff like, "I'll murder you in your sleep."

Wilfred has a string of cameos planned, including My Name Is Earl's Ethan Suplee (as a porn-loving thug), Ed Helms, Rashida Jones, Nestor Carbonell and many others. Maybe the word got out that there's something oddly magnificent in this dog story.

As for Curb Your Enthusiasm, now entering its eighth wince-inducing season, Larry David proves again that he can mine gold over and over from the same idea. Although Curb has sometimes gone out of its way to create painful scenarios for Larry to get in and out of, season eight just seems content to let him wander through life without a muffler on his mouth, like the days of old. Of course, he's got a divorce on his hands, but if there's a unifying theme, it's that Larry is now embracing what he's always been -- "a social assassin."

In a couple of episodes, Larry is basically hired out by people more meek than he -- which is pretty much everyone -- to do their verbal dirty work. They want Larry to say what they can't. Unsurprisingly, he thinks this is the deal of a lifetime. It all starts innocently enough, then ratchets up. Someone's wife is saying something insipid -- like "LOL" -- no problem. Your mother has an annoying tic -- saying "aaaaahhhh" after sipping a beverage? Again, not a problem. Larry will "fix" that.

Then again, it doesn't really matter what painfully inappropriate situation Larry gets into -- it's always funny. The Curb appeal has always rested somewhere between Larry's indifference to social faux-pas and the rage it induces in others. Also, he doesn't really understand the fuss, which translates to him doing what any sane person would do (but is afraid to).

Some of the episodes in season eight will take place in New York, which seems so perfectly organic that you wonder why it took this long. HBO's behind-the-scenes trailer of the New York episodes (which they didn't send out for review) looks especially full of energy and comic opportunity and feature Michael J. Fox and Ricky Gervais, among others.

Larry also unwittingly starts a can't-we-all-just-get-along (no) theme by going with Jeff to a Palestinian chicken restaurant that makes the best chicken anyone has ever tasted. Further, he's attracted to a woman there because her seething hatred of Jews is "hot." What comes from this is, well, very funny. But that's what everyone expects now. The test is always in the result -- is it still funny, even if you can see it coming?

In the case of Curb, it always seems to be LOL, no matter the season.

Wilfred 10 p.m. June 23 (FX)
Curb Your Enthusiasm 10 p.m. July 10 (HBO)