The second season of “Wilfred” officially kicks off tonight, June 28th at 10pm on FX, after last week’s prologue episode, “Progress,” which found our hero Ryan (Elijah Wood) in a mental hospital dealing with the possibility that he’s completely crazy. After all, Wilfred (Jason Gann), the dog that looks like a human only to him, was hit by a car, the love of his life Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) went back to her scumbag boyfriend, and he broke up his sister’s wedding by becoming his old asshole lawyer self. And when his doctor casually informs him that it’s not his fault, Ryan has a moment of shocking clarity: “Wait. That’s from ‘Good Will Hunting.’ You’re Robin Williams!”
And he is. Part of the charm of this re-imagined “Wilfred,” now in its third iteration since originating as a stoner short film and then becoming an Australian series from Gann and Adam Zwar, comes from the guest stars that seemingly appear from nowhere. Every role filled is surprising, but at the same time they play true to the type that we associate with the famous faces played them. When Jenna’s boyfriend Drew is introduced, he’s played by Chris Klein as an over-competitive jerk who Ryan can’t stand and who makes Wilfred bristle. Klein thrives in the role, as it’s like the warped and legitimate version of what would happen to Oz from “American Pie” if he were all grown up and once again insensitive.
The first two episodes of the first season make use of actors like Ethan Suplee to clash with Ryan’s meek straight-man and Wilfred’s own Beetlejuice-esque ways. Suplee, familiar to TV audiences from “My Name is Earl,” plays a pot-growing asshole that Wilfred uses to start Ryan’s newfound journey toward being his own man. The guest stars are integral to defining the working id, ego and superego represented by Ryan, Wilfred and Jenna, whether it’s by not trusting harmless characters like Ed Helms’ Daryl, the supposed dog-molester in “Acceptance,” to Rashida Jones’ Lisa, a hospice worker in “Respect” that Ryan finds himself trying to court and who becomes darker and more twisted as old folks continue to die off.
The key to a successful guest star appearance requires an approach that’s part “Law and Order” and part basic cable stunt-casting. The beauty of the “Law and Order” cameos came from so many actors getting their start there and evolving through the various shows, whether it’d be Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a throwaway role or Rainn Wilson as a deranged momma’s boy right before becoming Dwight Schrute on “The Office.” As for the stunt-casting, traditionally it’s done to heighten awareness of a series. But “Wilfred” rolls through its episodes so lazily that when Williams pops up during “Progress” as a bearded caricature of Patch Adams, it’s more of a surprise that it’s played off without so much as a “On a very special ‘Wilfred’…”
“Wilfred” showcases the evolving way that actors can leap between film, TV and even internet-based programming. The daily one-camera video comic “Puddin'” introduces cameos from James Urbaniak, Weird Al Yankovic, Patton Oswalt and — again — Williams as briefly and quickly as if they were Alfred Hitchcock but well aware of their status.
The characters are fleshed out further than brief one-shot appearances. Dwight Yoakam’s Bruce is particularly fascinating, since he’s not only been affected by Wilfred, but can see him in his “man-in-dog-suit” role. He could possibly be another figment of Ryan’s imagination, but the delight he takes in reprising the same character as his doctor from “Crank” is incredible.
Likewise, Jane Kaczmarek’s Beth, who appears in the episode “Pride,” builds on the audience’s sense memory of her as the mother in “Malcolm in the Middle.” Wilfred encourages Ryan to get it on with her, while he really is trying to bang her son’s plush giraffe. These guest spots aren’t just designed to be a flavor of the week in terms of casting, but they’re building upon the mythology that “Wilfred” is generating — instead of being just another show about smoking pot and giving up on the working week.
Tonight’s second season premiere builds on the reveal at the end of “Progress”: Ryan has gone back to being what he hated after destroying the life that Wilfred spent so much time trying to plan. Or else, that’s been Wilfred’s plan all along in some “Fight Club” manner. As for who’ll show up again this season, it’s anyone’s guess.
By this point, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Nathan Fillion show up in a giant hammer outfit or Steve Carrell as himself trying to figure out where he is. Regardless, they’ll be the perfect foil for Wood’s mystified, wide-eyed embodiment of a man’s mental breakdown, as well as his realization that Williams isn’t that good of a shrink.