‘Wilfred’: Bone-Dry Humor in a Warm and Wicked Cartoon Universe

The two seasons of Wilfred can be aptly subtitled “Past” and “Future”, respectively. For a series that touts its high concept — a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking dog visualized by a man in a suit who terrorizes his owner’s new boyfriend — so proudly, the show manages a gratifying amount of perspective on the relationship between its human characters. More surreal even than the sight of Wilfred (Jason Gann) himself might be the fact of Adam Douglas (the wearily befuddled Adam Zwar) and Sarah Mitchell (Cindy Waddingham)’s relationship, a constant ping-pong battle of indignance and stern disapproval supplemented by what one can only assume is a satisfying bedroom life.

As Adam contends with the highly emasculating experience of moving in with the businesslike, out-of-his-league Sarah in the very house where her (by all accounts) perfect late boyfriend Mark used to live, the first season more often than not requires him to prove himself in some way, to justify his place within her world. It’s only after the bizarre, traumatic events of the first season finalé that the relationship stabilizes, and thoughts turn instead to their years ahead as a couple.

Refreshingly, this means that season two is able to move beyond the antagonistic relationship between Adam and Wilfred toward a semi-comfortable sort of partnership. Much of Wilfred’s appeal can be traced back to the incongruity of the central image of Gann in the dogsuit, usually smoking a bowl, so the novelty of season one’s storylines that turn on Adam and Sarah’s differing perceptions of Wilfred is shortlived. Instead, resolving the conflict between man and dog loosens up the comedy, allowing for a second season that has the luxury of A and B storylines, more gags, and more energy overall. There’s even a sense of greater ambition, as with the two-part storyline that brings the characters back to Sarah’s childhood home to meet her free-wheeling parents and results in a long-overdue confrontation between Wilfred and his spiteful father.

Of equal importance to Wilfred’s appeal is its worldbuilding, impressively canny for a sitcom. However imaginative one considers its premise, there’s no denying the familiarity attained by selective recurrences of certain supporting characters, especially the ‘Dog Whisperer’ (a perpetually disgusted Kim Gyngell). Nowhere is this more apparent than in season one’s “Barking Behind Bars”, in which Adam takes revenge on Wilfred by shuttling him off to the pound and informing Sarah that her dog was hit by a car. The elaborate climactic funeral, staged as a logical endpoint of the appalling ruse, features numerous minor characters from the preceding episode, only serves to further isolate Adam within his girlfriend’s world.

“Barking Behind Bars” functions as the centerpiece of the series, in which Adam comes up against his own selfish proclivities and his relationship with Sarah endures its most serious test to date once she discovers that Wilfred remains alive. Most reasonable women, believing as Sarah does that Wilfred hasn’t a streak of mischief in him, would immediately dump their significant other for such callous behavior. Adam seems to expect as much, so when Sarah cheerfully interprets the funeral as a romantic gesture worthy of her reciprocation, it’s easily the most surreal moment yet in a series that has little inclination to make a lick of sense.

Yet it’s these surreal moments that most often give way to genuine sentiment, and allow Wilfred a place alongside the essential It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as a live representation of a fully developed cartoon universe capable of shedding light upon its characters at the proper moments to relate them back to reality in equal measures ironic and affecting. (The series may also appeal to fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, another series where everyone around the protagonist seems to be insane.) The minister at Wilfred’s faux-funeral intones gravely, “When we die, we will touch God’s face – in the form of Wilfred,” to Adam’s chagrin. He continues “In friends we find God, and we found God in Wilfred,” altering the phrasing to drive home that incalculable bond between pet and owner. Adam easily forgot that which the series never does: The dog is woman’s best friend, too.

Extras are sparse but entertaining, with a series of amusing outtakes with the cast and extended behind-the-scenes featurettes for both seasons that delve into the shooting and rehearsal process. Curiously, the actors seem to have a real problem remembering their lines. Most welcome among the special features is a clip called “Dog Bites”, made up of additional footage of Adam and Wilfred lounging about the sets, riffing on Gann’s wickedly crass improvisations.

RATING 7 / 10