A good television show is, in many ways, like a real dog. Both require a lot of attention and love, and occasionally, despite their best intentions, they drop a deuce in your living room.
When I first laid eyes on the original Australian series Wilfred, I loved co-creator Jason Gann‘s indelible performance as the title character, a man trapped in a dog’s body. But as funny and weird as the show was, it didn’t grab me on an emotional level. It wasn’t about anything, and at that point in my career I was looking to do something with more substance. Also, I’d already done two other shows with talking dogs and I didn’t want to look like a one-trick puppy.
Still, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. While the Aussie series centered on the irascible man-dog, I was more intrigued by the largely unexplored predicament of the human character, Adam (played by co-creator Adam Zwar). He was a low-key slacker who sees his girlfriend’s dog as a sketchy man in a cheap dog suit. Much to his bewilderment, everyone else sees just an ordinary dog.
How terrifying and lonely it would be to live with that kind of secret. Such a man might be so afraid of what people would think if they learned the truth that he’d likely become even more isolated and unable to make meaningful connections with others. His only choice would be to pretend he’s normal, to hide his authentic self from the world.
This was something that resonated with me. I had a turbulent childhood, and I learned at an early age that the best way to survive was just to pretend everything was fine. This, of course, is madness. Perhaps sometimes I fooled people, but more often I suspect I was perceived (accurately) as an angry, unhappy perfectionist.
With my trusty golden retriever, George, lying at my feet, I developed a new main character to whom I could relate. Ryan (Elijah Wood) was depressed, emotionally repressed, estranged from his family, and still suffering from some unspecified childhood trauma. For dramatic (and comedic) effect, we would meet him just as he was attempting suicide. (For the record, I have never done that, and while I often talk to dogs, they have never spoken to me.)
I thought of Wilfred as a show about finding happiness, even if that happiness comes from surrendering to your own insanity. In comedy terms, it would be about an old dog teaching a young man some new tricks. Son of Sam: The Sitcom. Harvey meets Fight Club. Ryan needs to learn how to let go of his past, to be released from the fears and self-doubt that limit his ability to live his life fully. Because I also wanted that for myself, this show became far more to me than just an existential stoner comedy. It was therapy.
Each episode began with a quote highlighting the theme we wanted to explore: Fear, Respect, Conscience, Sacrifice, Truth, etc. Many of the stories we did on the show came from my own issues and struggles, past and current. I also challenged my writing staff to draw inspiration from their own painful, and painfully funny, issues. (Yes, one of the writers actually, sort of, jerked off a dog. He knows who he is. And so does the dog.) We sometimes got into very deep conversations about what thoughts and behaviors were healthy or problematic. We had to be funny and tell compelling stories, but I also hoped Ryan’s self-exploration would give viewers some insight into themselves. What I couldn’t have predicted was that this show might actually save a life.
“I never in a million years thought that a show about a man and his friend in a dog suit would help me,” said a self-described reluctant fan in a blog post. “Ryan’s journey is also my own. Weekly therapy sessions through his eyes are helping me come to terms and cope with things in my own life that I’m really sad about.” He then went on to describe his thoughts of suicide following his break-up with a girlfriend. He changed his mind after seeing an episode in which Ryan copes with a similar break-up. While praising the remarkable Elijah Wood, he concluded, “Because of your portrayal of Ryan Newman, I am alive today.” I’ve seen less dramatic but similar sentiments expressed many times on Twitter and Reddit boards, though not always so eloquently. (“Yo, this trippy shit makes me think about life and shit.”)
Wilfred comes to an end this summer after four seasons on FX. It’s been a very emotional journey for me. Tremendously satisfying, but also challenging and bittersweet. Shortly after the pilot received a production order, my beloved dog George died suddenly. (His portrait graces my production card.) Sadly, during the show’s run, my 21-year marriage ended. Its demise not-so-coincidentally mirrored Ryan’s ill-fated relationship arc in season two. But just as Wilfred forced Ryan to face and overcome the darkness in his life, so too has Wilfred made me confront my own unhappiness. We have both learned many lessons about letting go, perspective, acceptance, honesty, faith, and just lightening the f*** up. (All of those were episode titles, except for the last one. We couldn’t find an appropriate quote.)
So, here’s a series finale spoiler alert: There is a very happy ending. For Ryan and me.
I’m in a much happier place than when I started working on this show. I will miss Wilfred as I do George. Sadly, that’s another thing good shows and good dogs have in common: Neither lives as long as you’d like them to.
Fortunately, both leave you with wonderful memories to cherish. I am grateful I had Wilfred in my life.
Wilfred‘s final season begins June 25 at 10 p.m. on FXX.