“Wilfred” takes aim at a subject seldom explored on cable television: Depression and existential ennui among America’s young, educated middle class. It’s an ambitious undertaking, a relevant topic, and an issue that’s plenty ripe for comedy. Unfortunately, “Wilfred” is off to a rough start, failing to deliver laughs or emotional depth, while offering a protagonist who’s simply too helpless to care about.
Interestingly enough, the first five minutes of the show are just about perfect. We meet Ryan (Elijah Wood), an anxious young man in a crisp suit who moves purposefully through his empty suburban home as he prepares to kill himself. He fails, of course, and the next day — through bleary eyes and a haze of self-disappointment — meets his hot young neighbor (Fiona Gubelmann) and her man-in-a-dog-suit (James Gann). Except to her, and to everyone else, it’s just a dog. A dog named Wilfred.
So there’s the story; Ryan sees a dog as a man. And they talk to one another. And Wilfred starts offering Ryan advice on how to live his life to the fullest. And Ryan begrudgingly accepts that advice, gradually breaking out of his straight-laced shell and learning to live for himself instead of others.
But what is Wilfred, exactly? A hallucination? A startling manifestation of Ryan’s apparent disconnect from the world around him? Hard to say, because there’s no real attempt to explain this development. Which is fine. We don’t need to know what Wilfred is; we’re content to assume he’s simply a byproduct of Ryan’s ongoing psychological ordeal — a coping mechanism, if you will. Or something.
In any case, he’s an asshole. As a dog, Wilfred appears to be just an ordinary mutt. As a man, he’s a gruff, pot-smoking slacker with no regard for rules, personal property, or social convention. He’s the perfect counterpoint to Ryan, who we learn was driven to suicide after years of passionless commitment to the pre-ordained yuppie lifestyle he never wanted, but couldn’t find the courage to reject.
So, yes, as you may have assumed by now, it’s essentially Fight Club, except Tyler Durden is a guy in a dog suit. The two basic elements are there: A down-on-life conformist seeking escape and a rough-and-ready rebel seeking little more than thrills. Which could make for great television, except for two major issues.
First, Ryan is frustratingly meek. He’s the Ben Stiller nice-guy archetype multiplied by a hundred — a scared protagonist who stutters and stumbles and shits his pants while people walk all over him. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not. It’s annoying, and it sabotages any chance the audience might have had at relating to this character.
Secondly, the show is predictable. The first three episodes all follow the same basic plot structure, and that structure isn’t particularly interesting. “Wilfred” seems likely to meander, skipping from misadventure to misadventure while offering no real character development or story advancement, save for a few pre-determined milestones, which the viewer can instantly see on the horizon.
That said, I’m not willing to write off “Wilfred” completely. It has potential, if only in its core subject matter: The gradual rebirth of a jaded young man who just can’t take it anymore. That’s good stuff. That’s something people want to watch, but only if they care about the protagonist. Nobody cares about a guy who can’t even form a sentence without wringing his hands and shuffling his feet.
“Wilfred” premieres June 23 on FX.