Jimmy Stewart and Harvey. Edward Norton and Tyler Durden. Gaius Baltar and Caprica 6. Phoebe Cates and Drop Dead Fred. The convention of imaginary friendship has a surprisingly long and varied history in film and television. If one of the powers of the film medium is its ability to visualize what the German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer famously referred to as “things normally unseen,” then first among these things must be projections of the human mind. From hyperreal visions like Brad Pitt’s Durden to invisible foils like the never-seen Harvey, imaginary friends often enable filmmakers to explore the thin line between reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity in ways that would have been otherwise impossible. In that spirit, the conceit of FX’s Wilfred, in which an ordinary neighborhood dog miraculously manifests himself to a depressed twentysomething (Elijah Wood) as a foul-mouthed Australian lout in a dog suit (Jason Gann), might strike us as a funny and potentially insightful idea for a TV show. Unfortunately, however, it’s neither terribly funny nor particularly insightful.
Wilfred is an adaptation and re-envisioning of a popular Australian series of the same name, and while the actor playing the titular pooch has made the journey overseas with his dog suit intact, much has changed about the show. For instance, in the Australian version, Wilfred meets cute with the show’s protagonist after a date with the dog’s owner, and as such much of the initial comedy is drawn from the awkward territorial squabbles between the two men—or males—in one lady’s life. While this love triangle still seems to be the structural underpinning of FX’s adaptation, Wilfred first appears to Wood’s Ryan in the midst of a spectacularly failed suicide attempt. From the death-haunted antiheroes of The Shield and Rescue Me to the sublime moral swan dives of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX has long been committed to gleefully swinging from gallows to gutter, and its take on Wilfred is promisingly, if predictably, dark as well. In this vein, the show seems invested in providing us with a pitiless guide through the depths of bourgeois American post-graduate malaise.
The pilot episode of Wilfred, written and directed by Family Guy co-creator David Zuckerman, is indeed morbid and surreal, but it also seems trapped by its own conceit. Even without the knowledge that the show is an adaptation, the pilot feels less like an exploration of an absurdist scenario than a rote recitation of one. The writers ostensibly want us to wonder if Wilfred is a figment of Ryan’s imagination, a materialization of his subconscious, or a guardian angel, though we may be more tempted to ask, “Who cares?” The jokes—especially the repeated gag of Wilfred rationally explaining destructive dog behaviors like digging holes in Ryan’s backyard or relieving himself in a neighbor’s boot—are occasionally funny, but pretty obvious and heavily telegraphed, echoed as they are in Family Guy‘s Brian and the dogs of Pixar’s Up. With this well-worn material alongside Gann’s whispered delivery and Wood’s spacey fumbling, the dynamic between the two sometimes suggests a zombie Martin and Lewis routine, albeit one with a puzzling number of off-color Asian jokes.
This is a problem, similar to the one faced in the early days of NBC’s The Office, that might resolve itself as the U.S. series matures on its own. Gann plays a compelling mutt—part Seth Rogen, part Bond villain, with a little Woody Allen thrown in. And though the life-coach advice he spouts in the pilot feels canned, there’s some room for growth in any show about a talking dog that quotes from both Dune and The Godfather Part II within the space of a half hour. Wood is also potentially engaging opposite Gann. From Radio Flyer to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Wood’s made a career of losing his innocence. But in the post-Mordor decade, his elfin looks still intact but his youthful purity long-punctured, Wood has struggled to find a place in Hollywood.
Despite the going-through-the-motions pilot, Wilfred might just be the opportunity Wood has been waiting for. His glassy blue eyes seem like a good fit for magical realism, and the promise of a sweet romantic subplot is a refreshing change of pace for an actor whose most sexual role since puberty—aside from his crazed romantic turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—has been as the bottom in the submerged queer narrative of Frodo and Sam. As Jane, Ryan’s probable soulmate and Wilfred’s owner, the appealing Fiona Gubelmann shows up a couple of times to utter lines carefully written specifically for Any Attractive Blond Actress. But hopefully, as the series progresses, Zuckerman will take a cue from previous iterations of the imaginary-friend plot and make Jane into an original third component for this triangle.
Absurdist sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Arrested Development have had some success, but surrealist shows that aren’t also cartoons have traditionally had a harder time being accepted by American audiences. So, while squirrel-eating jokes are all well and good for now, if Wilfred is going to make it, Wood and Gann will have to develop some real chemistry and comic rhythm, especially if the show’s writers continue to be so reliant on the inherent novelty of their premise. As Harvey or Tyler Durden or Drop Dead Fred can testify, the creators of Wilfred are not the first people to meditate on imaginary friendship, so the faster Wood, Gann, and others can naturalize us to their world and move on, the more likely America might be to adopt Wilfred.