You can find Elijah Wood in theaters this weekend playing a compulsive killer of young women in Franck Khalfoun’s remake of “Maniac,” offering a physically dissimilar and more angsty take on the crazed character originally dreamed up by Joe Spinell. But on the small screen he’s playing a very different style of disturbed as Ryan Newman, the depressive protagonist of FX comedy “Wilfred,” the third season of which kicks off on Thursday, June 20 at 10pm.
The show began in 2011 with Ryan rising from a night spent unsuccessfully trying to kill himself to find his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) at the door in search of a last-minute sitter for her dog Wilfred (Jason Gann), who for reasons still unexplained appears to Ryan as a pot-smoking man in a bedraggled canine suit. Over two seasons, Wilfred’s served as a companion to Ryan and a doler out of sometimes questionable advice that’s found the human standing up to his controlling sister Kristen (Dorian Brown) and pining for the now-married Jenna.
Gann, who co-created and starred in the Australian series of the same name on which “Wilfred” is based, gets to play the impish doggy id to the repressed Ryan, conducting a storied relationship with the stuffed bear he likes to hump, tossing off racist stereotypes and digging up the yard due to what he explains, sensibly, to his enraged host is clearly abandonment anxiety. But it’s Wood, taking advantage of his boyish air of arrested development, who powers the measured comedy by embodying a man in the middle of an ongoing breakdown who’s unsure if he really wants to put his life back together again.
Wood’s used the slight framed, huge eyed appearance that made him such an ideal hobbit to play against type before, most obviously in the aforementioned “Maniac” and as the cannibalistic altar boy in “Sin City,” but in “Wilfred” he plays to his looks. Ryan resembles and acts like a boy for whom adulthood is still a shock and a surprise — he’s ill at ease in his suburban house with the law career he’s tried to restart. His basement refuge with Wilfred is the place where he’s most at home, and it may be imaginary.
“Wilfred” isn’t the strongest of FX’s comedies, despite a particularly noteworthy lineup of guest stars that’s included Nestor Carbonell, Rashida Jones, Jane Kaczmarek and Robin Williams. Like Ryan himself, it sometimes seems directionless and unsure of where to head next. But it deserves kudos for undermining the quirky buddy scenario it seems, on its surface, to follow. Wilfred first arrived seemingly like some kind of hallucinatory savior for the desperate Ryan, pulling him out of his self-pity and encouraging him to relax, to get high, to loosen up and misbehave and chase what he wants. But that magical realist touch has been both sweet and sour — Wilfred’s also led Ryan to destructive actions almost as often as he has positive ones, and he often pursues goals and manipulates his friend in ways that benefit him. He’s not there to heal Ryan — and he may not be there at all.
In this week’s season premiere, “Wilfred” reintroduces the underlying question at its heart — whether or not Ryan’s insane, given his family history of mental illness and the amount of time he spends with a talking dog. This time the existential dread comes from the childhood drawing Ryan found in the season two finale, which showed Wilfred peeking out from behind a tree, suggested he’s always been in Ryan’s life and must therefore live in his head. Wilfred isn’t any more helpful about origin questions that Ryan is — he insists he’s probably an immortal magical being, and promptly almost kills himself trying to prove it. Ryan’s attempts to prove that Wilfred is a real dog only lead him down a more confusing path involving his past owner, and leave things once again uncertain.
This continuing tightrope walk can make “Wilfred” feel like it’s spinning its wheels, but the reality is that Ryan’s mental health isn’t so dependent on why Wilfred’s there so much as how much he should let Wilfred manipulate his life. Unlike other quirky series of its ilk that dealt with protagonists who received otherworldly guidance, from “Wonderfalls” to “Joan of Arcadia,” Wilfred doesn’t consistently lead Ryan down a confounding, humiliating but ultimately correct path — sometimes he just wants to be let out to pee. That the two aren’t always good for each other — that Wilfred also pulls Ryan away from life sometimes, as seen in the second and third episodes of the new season — is the sour note that saves “Wilfred” from being a twee comedy about therapy by way of a blazed guy in a dog costume.