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Television Roundup: WILFRED – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON on Blu-ray

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FX’s promos for its dark comedy “Wilfred” were, to say the least, uninspiring.  The show – a remake of an Australian TV comedy about suicidal loser Ryan Newman (played by The Lord of the Rings‘ Elijah Wood) who strikes up a friendship with a dog that, to him alone, looks like an unkempt Australian man in a cheap dog suit (Jason Gann, reprising his role from the original version) – seemed to skew more towards FX misfires like “Anger Management” and “Starved” than the network’s great “Louie,” “Archer,” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”; the previews only played up Gann misbehaving in his ridiculous dog suit (chasing after cars, licking his crotch, humping stuffed animals), portending a program of one note or less.

In reality?  “Wilfred” is actually pretty great, and far sneakier that the early previews suggested.  At its core, it’s an incredibly raunchy take on dog-meets-man narratives like Marley and Me or Merle’s Door.  Wilfred might smoke pot or swear in an Aussie brogue, but he serves the same purpose as Marley or Merle; he drags Ryan out from his own head and forces him to experience all of the irritation and heartache and joy and freedom and responsibility that accompany caring for a dog.  “Wilfred” takes this relationship seriously (I’d be amazed if showrunners Jason Gann, Adam Zwar, Tony Rogers, and David Zuckerman weren’t huge dog people), and maybe that’s why the previews sucked so hard: wacky stoner shenanigans are an easier sell than growing intimacy and self-actualization.

Not that “Wilfred” lacks for wacky shenanigans, mind you.  Every episode finds Wilfred putting Ryan through a ghastly situation, whether it’s instigating a conflict with the dead-eyed biker psycho next door, trying to fend off the advances of a way-too-canine-friendly doggy-day-care owner, or engaging in hospice care that finds Wilfred killing old people (don’t ask), but what leavens the more rote off-color explosions is the fact that Wilfred causes these problems out of love.  He wants Ryan to engage with the world as fully as he does, and the only way through Ryan’s shield of self-loathing and depression leaves scars.

It’s a credit to Gann and Wood that we take Ryan’s inner struggle as seriously as we do.  Gann’s biggest enemy is the dog suit, and he overcomes it by wholly embracing the animal.  For all of Wilfred’s sly manipulation and attitude, he’s still a dog, and Gann commits to the canine minutia, whether it’s freaking out over a laser pointer or complaining – loudly and at length – every time he has to be left home alone.  And Wood is a revelation.  He never plays Ryan’s sadness for laughs; we believe this kid is a hair’s breath from killing himself, which makes his gradual progress that much more satisfying.  As unreal as the premise appears, Gann and Wood believe in it, and as such, so do we.

Each “Wilfred” episode ends with Ryan and Wilfred hanging out on the couch together.  No matter what the tone of the rest of the episode has been, these sessions are informal, relaxed.  The two goof off, ribbing each other and getting high, and I’d wager that Gann and Wood are just riffing without a script.  Their chemistry is infectious – we feel like we’re looking at best friends enjoying each other’s company.  In moments like these, “Wilfred” reminds you that the dog as “Man’s Best Friend” isn’t just an old adage; it’s a cherished thing, and deeply fulfilling.

Twentieth Century Fox’s two-disc Blu-ray set looks fairly good, though it isn’t without issues; “Wilfred” is shot in HD, and some digital and aliasing effects do pop up from time to time.  Still, picture quality is generally solid (and always watchable), and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks work nicely.

Bonus features are, across the board, fluffy.  Best are the fifteen minutes of deleted scenes; we then get two short montages (“Wilfred and Bear: A Love Affair” compiles the….love scenes the two share, while “Maryjane Mash-up” is exactly what you think it is), a too-short excerpt from the “Wilfred” 2011 Comic-Con panel, and an amusing but inessential Q&A between Jason Gann and three film school students.

It would be surprising enough if “Wilfred” proved marginally more watchable than its dire previews.  The shocker is that it’s better than “watchable”; behind all the gross outs and marijuana smoke, you’ve got a genuinely affecting look at a guy who becomes a better person because of a dog.

“Wilfred: The Complete First Season” is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.