Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

FX’s ‘Wilfred’s’ bite is worse than his snark, but hangdog ‘Louie’ is sublime

I’ll be first to Bash a Franklin in the Glades if we get any more cable shows about cool-dude lawyers, renegade lady lawyers, edgy federal agents partnered with ex-cons and all that. But I’m not sure a show about an obnoxious man dressed as a dog is the right cure.

Situated among the mid-tier cable channels and their many formulaic crime-solving dramas (I mean you, USA and TNT), only FX exhibits a genuine desire to show viewers that commercial television can be provocative and new. FX’s original scripted shows remind me of a good college radio station: I may not always dig what it’s playing, but I dig that it’s different. Different is all I really ask.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

Archive

  • ( Michael Becker / FX ) - A depressed lawyer played by Elijah Wood is the only person who can see the surly man in a dog suit in the dark comedy “Wilfred,” a new show on FX.
  • ( FX / ) - Louis C.K. returns for a second sublime season of the semi-autobiographical “Louie.”

( Michael Becker / FX ) - A depressed lawyer played by Elijah Wood is the only person who can see the surly man in a dog suit in the dark comedy “Wilfred,” a new show on FX.

So when FX unveils a new series, I snap-to, because the results can be superlative and instantly addictive, as with “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified.” Even when some of the network’s offerings leave me a tad frosty (“Lights Out,” “Archer”), I’m left with something to admire in the writing, the acting or the overall feel.

But rarely is an FX show as puzzlingly discordant as “Wilfred,” a darkly comedic series premiering on the network Thursday night. In moments where it ought to be subversively sweet, “Wilfred” opts for sour; in what might have been its funniest bits, it suddenly rolls over and plays dead; where it wishes to be ironic and droll, it is often just dumb or mean. Most oddly, it does something you’d think would be impossible in our culture: It makes you dislike a dog.

The dog is the main character in “Wilfred,” who is actually an unpleasantly cruel-minded Australian man in a dog suit. Where it would seem the rest of the world sees Wilfred as a real mutt on four legs, only Ryan (Elijah Wood), a depressed lawyer who lives next door, sees Wilfred the way the audience does, as a guy walking upright in a fur suit.

Lifted intact from a hit Australian show of the same name and adapted for American audiences by executive producer David Zuckerman, “Wilfred” would appear to be crafted from a can’t-miss, indie-hipster aesthetic, which may be part of the problem: The show is cool to the point of being cold. The bark is all snark.

It doesn’t work. We meet Ryan on the night he’s decided to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills. (They turn out to be placebos.) After a frantic night spent tossing, turning and becoming even more depressed, Ryan is jolted by a knock on the door: His cute neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), is there to ask a simple favor: Would he keep her dog company while she’s out for the day?

Enter Wilfred, who is bad news from the start, but not in an outdated Marmaduke sense of mischief. “Got any DVDs? I like Matt Damon,” Wilfred announces, making himself comfortable on a bewildered Ryan’s couch. “I ain’t gonna bite ya,” he assures Ryan, in his thick Aussie accent. “Bitin’s the easy way out.”

Soon enough, Wilfred and Ryan fire up a bong. They have lunch at a restaurant, where Wilfred mounts the waitress. (When Ryan pries him off her leg, Wilfred informs him, “You are a [EXPLETIVE] wingman.”)

It’s a much more profane interpretation on “Calvin and Hobbes”-­­style metaphysics: Is Ryan hallucinating Wilfred’s humanlike qualities? Why can no one else see the man in the dog suit?

You’re asking questions, which is apparently the wrong way to watch the show. Each episode of “Wilfred” is a rumination of sorts on doglike qualities every human might hope to attain: Happiness, Trust, Fear, Acceptance, Pride, etc. In concept only, that all sounds promising, but Wilfred is too bad a dog. He encourages Ryan to chuck his career, wreaks havoc in his life and eggs him on to be a worse person, not a better one.

The energy and edgy psychosis that Wood (now 30) brings to the part of Ryan is all but canceled out by Gann’s performance as Wilfred. Apparently Gann, who co-created the Australian version and starred as Wilfred, conveyed with the property — which is too bad. It’s fine with me if Wilfred is supposed to be surly and hateful, but Gann is also boring in the part.

What’s more, in spite of Wilfred’s occasional funny lines (giving a dog a bone is an offensive stereotype, “like giving a basketball to a black guy”), his impulses seem entirely un-doglike, absent the creature’s universal Zen. A few episodes in, I strongly wished that Wood had been cast as the dog instead. That’s a pup we could love.

‘Louie’

What tennis balls are to dogs, “Louie” is to TV critics: We’re obsessed.

Written and directed by comedian Louis C.K., the show is back for a second season on FX, after “Wilfred,” and what else can I do but yap excitedly and try to get you to watch one of the best shows on TV right now? The first four episodes of the new season will not disappoint fans.

Shot in the gloomiest, grayest part of a Lower Manhattan winter, “Louie” broadens itself a bit, focusing on his semi-autobiographical character’s relationship to his daughters, as well as his more ambivalent misgivings about parenthood.

But “Louie’s” surreally awkward scenes are also firmly intact, exemplified Thursday with a trip to the E.R. with Louie’s visiting pregnant sister. And a Joan Rivers cameo a few weeks from now verges on the sublime. I’m barking my head off here. Let “Louie” in.

Wilfred

(30 minutes) premieres Thursday
at 10 p.m. on FX

Louie

(30 minutes) returns Thursday
at 10:30 p.m. on FX.

 
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