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TV Tonight: Wilfred: Man's Best Frenemy

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Full disclosure: I am a sucker for the man-befriends-nonhuman-creature genre of sitcoms. So when I first caught wind of Wilfred, an adaption of an Australian comedy about a man who sees his neighbor’s dog as a six-foot guy in a dog costume, my tail began wagging involuntarily. Maybe this would fill the Greg the Bunny-sized hole in my viewing schedule.

FX sent the pilot several months ago, and it was indeed gaspingly funny. But I was still skeptical about it as the material for a series. This would make a great movie, I thought, or series of beer commercials. But fodder for one sitcom episode after another?

I’ve now seen three episodes of Wilfred, however, and I think this bizarre, dark yet oddly good-hearted series (premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET) has legs. Four of them, at least.

When we meet the nebbishy Ryan (Elijah Wood), he’s sitting home at night, dressed in a tie, due to start a new job tomorrow–and typing a suicide note. After his overdose attempt fails, he meets his new, cute next-door neighbor Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) and Wilfred, her dog (Jason Gann). At least to her and the rest of the world he’s a dog. To Ryan, he’s a blunt-spoken Australian guy in a dog suit, with a penchant for Matt Damon movies and pot.

Ryan agrees to watch Wilfred for a day, and within minutes, the man-dog has slumped on his couch, fired up a homemade bong and convinced Ryan not to take the job that he’s been dreading to start. “You’re a good boy,” Wilfred says. “You come when you’re called. You don’t rub your arse on the carpet. Aren’t you tired of doing what everyone else wants you to do?”

I was a little leery of Wilfred’s premise, funny as the interspecies bromance is; it could easily play as another pat manxiety sitcom about a neutered guy needing to get in touch with his primal assertiveness, with the dog standing for everything that is masculine and untamed. But Wilfred is not about Ryan being overly feminized but rather his being overly humanized–neurotic, worrisome, overthinking every possible choice to the point of paralysis. Wilfred whirls into his life like a filthy, canine Cat in the Hat, throwing the house into disarray in order to show Ryan how to live in it.

The movies have not quite figured out what to do with Elijah Wood, and that’s Wilfred’s gain; he’s spot-on as the fidgety but decent Ryan finding his inner dog. But the real triumph of Wilfred is Gann, creator of the Aussie original, who has imagined Wilfred as a complete, um, person. To Ryan, he’s half fairy dogmother and half undermining antagonist: he’s protective of Jenna once he senses Ryan’s crush on her, and he’s glad to lie and manipulate to get what he wants.

Gann imagines Wilfred like a Nietzschean uberdog, philosophical and strangely well-read (he quotes Dune in the pilot) but a little amoral. And yet he’s also deeply feeling: he wants to help guide Ryan, and in turn feels betrayed when Ryan ignores his advice. But his psychology is also hilariously canine, both on the superficial level (he goes nuts over tennis balls and laser pointers) and a deeper level (he gives and expects a kind of intense loyalty that would strike most humans as stalkerish). I never thought I would write that an actor had pulled off a convincing psychological portrait of a dog-man, but that’s what Gann has done here.

There’s a lot of broad humor here, as there should be. (Wilfred, like the four-legged variety of his species, likes to hump things, and people, and he describes eating a dead possum’s nethers like a restaurant critics describing a seared foie gras.) But it ties into the show’s bigger ideas about seizing the day: life your life as if it were measured in dog years.

I’m still not persuaded that the premise can sustain over many seasons. The edgy connection between Wilfred and Ryan is brilliant, but the small sphere of characters makes the early episodes feel a little claustrophobic, and the peripheral characters are fairly thin so far (literal girl next door Jenna, Ryan’s harpy-ish sister, an obnoxious biker neighbor played by Ethan Suplee).

But as Wilfred says, let’s not overthink things: it is just dead funny to see a furious man in a dog suit chase a motorcycle, yelling, “I’ll kill you!” Thus far, this weird man’s-best-frenemy story is quite fetching.