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'Wilfred': Still Man's Best Fiend
June 19, 2013  | By Eric Gould

The promo material for the third season of FX's Wilfred includes that pot-smoking, trouble-making hound (Jason Gann) and his oft-unwilling companion Ryan (Elijah Wood) seated at the venerable felt-green table. With them, the usual suspects: a round-table full of other poker-playing dogs.

And with that portrait, you get the sense that the canine show's producer and writers just might be out of bullets, and the ironic reference to bad folk art is all that's left in the comedy arsenal for this odd, surreal little show.

Happily, that turns out not to be the case. After a lackluster Season 3 premiere (Thursday, June 20, at 10 p.m. ET), the following two episodes find some new, inventive ground in which Wilfred can romp, leading Ryan, as usual, into epic, existential misadventures.

That Wilfred might not have anywhere new to go would hardly be surprising. It seems increasingly more difficult for shows with strong starts (Homeland springs to mind) to maintain the daring and flourish that got them there in the first place.

The nature of serial television makes some shows reach, the plot-twisting costs be damned. Those plot twists often are meandering, and far-removed from the core concepts of their shows' initial invention. Mad Men seems to have a seven-year plan, Breaking Bad five, and that seems just the right amount, given the narrative arcs of those stories. The Simpsons has gone almost 25, but it's safe to say that given the madcap pace of that show, it invites and thrives on crazy plot jags and implausible twists. Also, the playing field is wider for two-dimensional characters.

Wilfred shouldn't be measured against signature dramas of its time, but it's worthwhile to ask if a show knows where its going. Does it has some sort of end-game in mind, or is it just doggie-paddling around for plot tricks to keep the thing afloat?

In Thursday's season premiere episode, Wilfred grossly flounders around in territory retread from previous seasons.  It's well established that Ryan sees Wilfred as a impulsive, irresponsible talking dog, or maybe even as we see him: a misanthropic Australian with poor impulse control, in a dog suit. Everyone else, though, sees an ordinary, lovable mutt. Wilfred and Ryan banter back and forth about Wilfred's actual existence and Ryan's grasp on reality, even though he seems normal enough to us.

Oh well, they shrug, maybe they ought to just go with it.  They're happy enough not knowing what the deal is, and so, they imply, maybe should we.

It hardly seems a compelling reason to join them for the third season. But then, in the second episode, we find Wilfred believing, as dogs perhaps do, that when someone leaves, even just going to the store, it's like a death.

Given a pet's angst at being left alone, and its unbridled joy upon their owners return, it's a logical, comical device for the episode. "Just because you don't see someone for a while doesn't mean they're dead," Ryan explains. "I'm pretty sure they were dead. I looked everywhere for them," Wilfred responds.

Wilfred, as the reckless enthusiast, then finds religion on TV, and, eventually, the Lord. Even though he reconciles that absence may not mean death, he cannot accept that death, in dog logic, means the end of things. God, and an afterlife, must exist.

Referring to his next-door neighbor and owner Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) and her new husband Drew (played by Chris Klein from American Pie) Wilfred asks, "Does Jenna not cry out to God, late at night, when she lyeth with Drew? Does Drew not call out the name of Jesus when someone lands on 'Bankrupt' on Wheel of Fortune?" He adds, "When one walks with the Lord, Ryan, one's tail is always wagging."

It's there that the series finds its usual, psychological game as Wilfred later finds God, as a dog would, in a loud noise that frightens him. Episode three also does well with Ryan's sister Kristen (Dorian Brown) finding a new romance.  Wilfred and Ryan become suspicious of the boyfriend's extracurricular activities, and scheme to trail him. Ryan's paranoia is not confined simply to Wilfred as the signpost of his lost grip on reality. He finds breaks everywhere, even in his sister's confidence in him to babysit her newborn baby.

And this year, there is an added, odd touch for the series, which was originally written and produced in Australia by Gann, in a Down Under version, in 2007. For the new season of FX's Wilfred, the photography is shot in an extremely short depth of field. As Ryan and Wilfred stand in the same frame, one, or the other is generally out of focus. Or, more insidiously, one or the other is slightly out of focus.

It's a crafty visual trick for a show built on quirky imbalances to maintain its conceit of a talking dog, and suggests, perhaps, that it might not be Wilfred that's the mirage after all.

Ryan, not Wilfred, could be the fabrication. Eventually, we just might be zooming out in the series finale some season to find an ordinary pooch asleep with a twitching leg, the whole thing a St. Elsewhere-style, doggie daydream.

That might well be the final twist that this story of Ryan's surrealistic talking dog is slyly, and intentionally, inching towards. And what a wonderful end that would be, indeed, to this epic dog's tale.
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