Based on an Australian series, “Wilfred” feels like a Web short — meant to be viewed in three-minute increments, a la bits on “Funny or Die” — stretched to series length. As is, this understandable cult commodity Down Under has moments of goofy charm, and benefits greatly from Elijah Wood’s vulnerability as the suicidal slacker who finds his own Harvey — in this case, a gruff, pot-smoking, anthropomorphic dog only he sees as a person, played by Aussie co-creator Jason Gann. Paired with “Louie,” the hour finally reinforces how the quest for comedies to rival FX’s dramas still remains elusive.
Poor Ryan (Wood) is introduced in the midst of a feeble attempt to do himself in. So he’s not sure if he’s hallucinating when his attractive neighbor (Fiona Gubelmann) asks if she can drop off her dog, Wilfred (Gann), who Ryan sees as a large bloke with a black nose, surly attitude and penchant for bong hits and Matt Damon movies.
Think “Harvey,” except the audience also gets to see what Ryan sees, and far from a benign and whimsical force, Wilfred is kind of a bastard. Mostly, he’s a raging id who keeps calling Ryan a pussy, urging him to stand up to a neighborhood bully (“My Name Is Earl’s” Ethan Suplee) and unleash all those repressed feelings. The only off-limits commodity in that regard is Jenna, who Wilfred refers to as “my girl.”
Ryan has so little going on in his life he’s willing to hang out with Wilfred, even as he continues to pine for Jenna. The sweetness and vulnerability Wood brings to the role, frankly, is all that prevents “Wilfred” from being little more than a showcase for dick and butt-sniffing jokes.
That’s not to say the talking-dog conceit doesn’t yield the occasional stray laugh or seeing Gann in his idiotic costume won’t evoke a smile; still, there are precious few inspired gags, like Wilfred snapping at a neighbor and winding up in the mask slapped on Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” (Given how difficult it must be for Wood to maintain a straight face playing opposite Gann, chalk this up as another case where the outtakes and DVD extras will likely be better than the show.)
FX is scheduling “Wilfred” leading into “Louie,” which probably says as much about the perceived ratings appeal of the latter show as it does the new one. Because while “Wilfred” will doubtless find cultish admirers, after previewing three episodes, the size of its pack should be limited.