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One year on Halloween, I wore a Wilfred costume as I handed out candy to kids and, later, walked around a famous street in Berkeley, near the Cal campus, known for its Halloween houses.
It wasn’t just a costume that looked like Wilfred, the dog — or rather, the man-in-the-dog-suit character on the brilliant FX series. No, it was a real Wilfred costume that FX had made up for Comic Con, where ostensibly someone wore it around in the hot sun before I got it. I don’t know. FX sent it to me as a joke because I had been one of the earliest and most vocal critics professing his love for a series about, well — let me try to recreate how I explained it to the neighbors back then. When I was wearing the furry gray suit with black stuff on my nose and holding a beer, handing out candy.
“Are you a bear?” one of my neighbors asked.
“No, I’m Wilfred. I’m a dog. It’s a TV show.”
“I’ll bet the dog doesn’t drink beer!” the neighbor said.
“Actually, he drinks lots of beers. And smokes a lot of pot from a bong.”
“So it’s not a kids show?”
“Nope. It’s a really funny and twisted and touching existential series about how a dog, who may or may not be imaginary, helps his neighbor try to find happiness after trying to kill himself.”
“No, the neighbor.”
“But it’s a real dog?”
“No, it’s an Australian guy with a beard, in the dog suit. Exactly like this one.”
On and on it went. Nobody had seen it. Most people thought I was a bear. Some definitely said I was a dog, after some debate. I was given more beer as I walked around with my kids, trick or treating. Not long after, a bunch of us hauled over to this street in Berkeley known for its packed crowds and Halloween houses.
“Wilfred!” said the first of many Cal college students who gave me high fives, hugged me and took pictures with me. I made a note to tell the FX people who their audience was.
Of course, more people eventually found out. You might even say that Wilfred, which was created by that Australian guy, Jason Gann, in his home country years before and then was reimagined for FX by David Zuckerman (Family Guy, King of the Hill) and Gann, eventually became a cult hit. But it never achieved the fame it deserves (admittedly, like a lot of series), and that’s why it’s my next choice for a Hidden Gem people need to discover immediately (all four seasons are streaming on Hulu right now).
I loved Wilfred from the first couple of minutes until the last two-part, amazingly touching and well-crafted finale. It’s a series that was so incredibly easy to make a sizzle reel for — a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, beer-drinking, oversexed dog, portrayed by a scraggly-faced Australian, is never not funny. Alongside Gann was Elijah Wood as Ryan, the neighbor we meet in the first episode trying to kill himself. Wood was criminally under-acclaimed for his work on this series and the more you watch it and revisit the episodes — they stay remarkably fresh on repeated viewings — the more you’ll see that.
Fiona Gubelmann played Jenna, Ryan’s bubbly and adorable next-door neighbor, whom he falls hopelessly in love with; she is, arguably, his reason for not going through with his suicide attempt again. Zuckerman’s evil genius plan was, in many ways, Gubelmann, who is so immensely likable. She asks Ryan nicely if he’ll watch her dog, Wilfred, while she goes off and, you know, doesn’t really take care of him during the day — and the series is off and running. In the early years, it was hard to believe that Jenna was selfish and weak and would prey on Ryan’s insecurities because his love was, for the most part, always going to be unrequited. Why fall for Ryan who, sure, was depressed but also reliable and sweet and smart and thoughtful when she could have Drew (Chris Klein), the good looking, well-hung lunk from her old hometown of Sheboygan (the series is set in Los Angeles, which was also helpful because that sunny, ultra-positive vibe where everybody seems successful went against Ryan, whose sense of alienation from happiness never seemed to fit society and, of course, Wilfred, who literally and figuratively shits on everything). Setting up Jenna as the manic pixie dream girl and as the embodiment of what Ryan thinks will make him happy was perfect in its way, as Zuckerman knew, because so often the things and people we love and think will make us happy end up letting us down or leaving us unfulfilled.
Wilfred managed to be a lot of things at once. It was ridiculously crude and funny — Wilfred was in a sexual relationship with a stuffed bear called “Bear” and constantly made vile jokes and flew into fits of hilarious rage at other dogs or people. At the same time, Wilfred was an existential philosopher and life coach for Ryan and Gann could always deliver the goods on both — even when Wilfred went particularly heavy on the existential elements and ratcheted up the uncertainty as to whether Ryan was really seeing a man in a dog suit or whether Wilfred was a real dog and poor Ryan was schizophrenic.
As sweet as Ryan is, his sister Kristen (Dorian Brown) is wonderfully awful. Over the course of four seasons, Brown’s contributions were perfectly delivered.
I loved that despite its coarseness there was always something tender about the series; it could be hilariously, fearlessly inappropriate one moment and then deftly re-establish that Ryan was essentially alone and vulnerable in the world and Wilfred was his best friend, trying to make him happy. You can’t disapprove of a boy and his dog, right?
Obviously you have to have a thing for truly dark comedy and also lots of tolerance for sexual innuendo (not that a man in a dog suit humping a stuffed bear can be classified as innuendo), stoner humor and debauchery. But on Wilfred everything is balanced: There’s real love between Wilfred and Bear; trying to find the sweetness in life and something to believe in is important; and a dog will always love you even if the real people you love will let you down. There were always sweet little lessons, even after, say, a scene where Wilfred — and then Ryan — shit in a mean neighbor’s boots.
There were also tons of great cameos and recurring actors, like Mary Steenburgen, Steven Weber, Dwight Yoakam, Ethan Suplee, Jane Kaczmarek, Robin Williams, John Michael Higgins, Gina Gershon, James Remar, Kristen Schaal and others.
While some people thought the second season got bogged down in the more serious elements and the structural intrigue of what Ryan was actually experiencing, it was still excellent. The third season really put an emphasis on the humor again, but the whole series balanced the comedy with a sharp focus on how to end things (whether Ryan would find happiness and mental health, what was the meaning of life, etc.) during the entirety of the fourth and final season. No spoilers at all here, because Wilfred went in a lot of unexpected directions that need to be experienced as they arise for maximum emotional impact.
Cumulatively, Wilfred never got the attention or appreciation it deserved. It’s a true Hidden Gem, though, from the wildly funny moments to the surprisingly introspective ones. The underlying focus on what makes people happy and Ryan’s mental health never wavered.
The series truly thrived under Zuckerman and director Randall Einhorn (who helmed all but three episodes and infused the series with visual panache, from the indoor, bong-smoking-fueled philosophical riffs to the outdoor beach scenes and the cruelty/joy of fetch, and all the ridiculous visual jokes in between. Look, Einhorn made the actors always seem like it was totally normal to be interacting with a man in a dog suit. It’s harder than it looks.
I loved how Wilfred ended, but could have watched Gann and Wood riff as best friends for a lot more than 49 episodes. They were exceptional together. After rewatching some episodes to freshen up my memories (Wilfred ran from 2011 to 2014 and, in that last season, was moved over to FXX, which was for many people out of sight and out of mind), what I most appreciated was the consistency of Gann’s humor and how he could shift over so effortlessly to the serious parts, mirrored by Wood’s ability to be sweet and suffering at the same time. The series as a whole more than holds up — it’s even better than I remember it and I loved it a lot back then — but the Gann-Wood dynamic really stands out.
If you’re looking, metaphorically, for a dog who will understand you and hug it out with you as you try to discover the meaning of life (but will also undoubtedly grab your ass and cough up some bong smoke in your face as he goes to lick you), well, maybe Wilfred is for you.
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