While as viewers we tend to focus on the exceptions rather than the rule, many television programs do, in fact, get precisely the level of attention and admiration they deserve. Now and again a promising young program may be prematurely scrapped because it costs too much to produce or garners a devout but too-narrow viewership—Rome is a good example of the former phenomenon, Firefly the latter—and certainly there are many programs more beloved than lovable (e.g., How I Met Your Mother), but these days it’s rare for a program of sterling imagination and craftsmanship to disappear into the ether before its time. Finely-calibrated shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy are enjoying long and well-deserved runs on American television sets, and Americans are the better for it.
At first blush, Wilfred seems another success story of this sort: It has generally impressed critics; viewers like it (Season 1 was a top-ten cable program); the show stars the lead actor of one of the highest-grossing film series in history (Elijah Wood); it airs on FX, a channel whose programming is considered among the best this side of HBO; it’s based on a foreign series that won three AFI awards between 2007 and 2011 (AFI being the Australian equivalent of the Emmys); it features the sort of irreverent humor preferred by American advertisers’ most-coveted demographic, the 18-to-49 set; and not for nothing, it’s presently the preeminent high-concept program on American television, doing more per minute to subvert viewer expectations than Lost ever did. Yet despite being so intellectually and emotionally challenging, Wilfred has gotten not even a fraction of the buzz afforded Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy. Why?
On closer examination, chinks in the armor are evident: Wilfred is a program without a genre, as it’s nominally a sitcom but offers no laugh-tracks, studio audience, or stable points of reference (think of the reassuring, character-based through-lines of a sitcom like Friends or Seinfeld). Its titular character, the show’s costar, never appears outside a man-sized dog-suit, just the sort of visual quirk likely to squelch speculation of serious artist intent. It’s neither properly episodic nor properly serialized, as individual episodes both do and don’t depend upon episodes preceding and following. Wood, the show’s most conspicuous setpiece, plays the straight man to Jason Gann’s Wilfred so convincingly, it’s maddening. Certain scenes (such as one in which Ryan is forced to prostitute himself to eliminate a debt, or one in which Wilfred attempts to kill Ryan’s sister while under the influence of demonic possession) are among the most psychologically upsetting accessible on cable; there are entire sequences of episodes in both the first and second season of Wilfred that are gripping but almost entirely devoid of humor. And the series as a whole lacks a plot—unless you count as plot a man’s psyche slowly circling the drain.
For all that, Wilfred proves to America’s TV-watching audience something innovative fiction-writers (e.g., Robert Coover and John Barth) and poets (e.g., the Russian Metarealists of the 1970s and 1980s) have known for some time: Metarealism offers a more rigorous and exhilarating brand of social commentary than realism ever has or will. We can enjoy watching the decline and fall of anti-heroes like Don Draper (Mad Men), Walter White (Breaking Bad), or Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy), but ultimately we learn more about ourselves and our sometimes maddening environs when the environs we see on our television screens are fabricated entirely from whole cloth.
At its best, television improves our emotional intelligence. Bearing witness to the psychic detritus of fictonalized characters, be it a drunken cop-prodigy (Jimmy McNulty of The Wire) or a salty space-captain (Malcom Reynolds of Firefly) or a shifty saloon troll (Al Swearengen of Deadwood), helps us understand why and how the vagaries of the human condition often lead to conflict and tragedy. But we’d hardly call most of our favorite television shows mimetic—they don’t remind us, in intimate and exacting ways, of our own lives and shortcomings. Their focus is usually on the social sphere, or, at best, on how social spaces help shape psychic spaces. The result is that they’re far more likely to educate us about how to be happy social animals than how to socialize the animal within us all.
Wilfred is undoubtedly this second sort of animal, a television show with little interest in depicting civil society and heavily invested in overturning rocks most of us habitually leave undisturbed. It pushes, with each episode, not only the boundaries of good taste, not only the boundaries of which questions television can ever ask or seek answers to, but of whether, far from being merely imitative, television must acknowledge any relationship with reality at all. In short, Wilfred stakes its claim upon two audacious premises that could affect the future of television programming in America: One, that metarealism has become a more relevant critical mechanism through which to view American culture than realism has been or can be; two, that if we wish to minimize Americans’ penchant for escapism—and the use of television as a fetish for doing so—it’ll take, paradoxically, just the sort of high-concept Art Wilfred offers.
Wilfred is, depending on your view of the “reality” (if any) it depicts, either a show about a living man, or a dead man; a show about one living man and one dead man, or a show about one living man and one ghost; a show about one living man and one living dog, or a show about one living man and one dead dog; or a show in which none of the actors are presently living. Somewhere in the mix is an insufferable sister, a mentally-ill mother, a chipper girl next door, Chris Klein of American Pie, endless bags of weed, two stuffed animals that may or may not be sentient and/or sexually insatiable, and an entire dog culture invisible to human eyes and ears.
By pushing to the margins most of the setpieces we’d expect to find in a primetime sitcom, Season 1 of Wilfred finally seems more like a play—a morality play—than anything else on television. If the brief description of the show provided above seems coy, it’s only because Wilfred is one of the first shows ever to appear on American television screens (Lost is another) in which nothing that occurs on-screen may “actually” be happening, and the central mystery of the series is the presence or absence of a stable reality. This isn’t to say Wilfred takes place in a perpetual dream state, though portions of certain episodes definitely do, but rather that Wilfred offers viewers several layers of reality, or metareality, to choose from, and individual scenes—indeed, individual shots within scenes and individual lines within dialogues—cycle so rapidly between these layers of reality it’s often impossible to pin down what’s actually happening, or when, or why.
The first level of reality: Ryan Newman is an attorney who retires from the legal profession in his late twenties. The reasons for this retirement are unclear, though there’s much in the air implying a dark secret surrounding the decision.
The second level of reality: Ryan kills himself in the first scene of the series. The fact that the series doesn’t stop after the pilot implies Ryan survives the attempt. However, by beginning with an attempted self-expurgation, Wilfred throws the reliability of everything we see thereafter into a state of perpetual turmoil. Is Ryan dead? Is the series merely an allegorical post-mortem?
The third level of reality: Wilfred appears on Ryan’s doorstep with his “owner,” Jenna. As the series progresses, all options remain equally possible and equally unpalatable as to who or what Wilfred is. A dog, a man, a ghost, God, Satan, Ryan’s id, Ryan’s ego?
The fourth level of reality: Ryan and Wilfred smoke pot incessantly in Ryan’s basement; Ryan’s high for most of each day. How much does he see through the haze of THC? Is Wilfred (is Ryan’s life) a drug-induced hallucination?
The fifth level of reality: Ryan has a family history of schizophrenia—an ailment that began to manifest in his mother when she was exactly the age Ryan is at the start of Season 1 of Wilfred. Ryan’s also been the victim of several childhood traumas. The entire series is symptomatic of schizophrenia, and each episode appears to reenact a trauma Ryan has previously experienced.
The sixth level of reality: Wilfred often moves in social ecosystems separate and distinct from Ryan’s, begging the question of how these systems are constructed and who’s constructing them. Ultimately, Gann offers American audiences the best depiction of dog logic—in human terms—in the history of film or television. Were it nothing else, Wilfred would function as a startling exposé of the cruelties endemic to the animal brain: Cruelties to which the human brain is, of course, heir.
The seventh level of reality: After-school-special-ready platitudes precede each episode of Wilfred, offering a thematic framework for each scenario and suggesting that the plotlines of Wilfred are merely moral allegories with no greater affiliation to reality than, say, the Bible.
We all do things we’re not proud of—and when we’ve harmed ourselves or others with sufficient gusto, we usually don’t just repent, we wish to undo. Yet sometimes our errata permanently transform us in a way we can neither alleviate nor avoid, and it’s out of these sorts of tensions Great Art is made. It’s in such moments that we ask ourselves, “Am I man or animal? What sort of man would persist in this course of action? What sort of impulse drives these thoughts, what sort of thoughts these actions, what sort of actions this life?”
Invariably, we answer these questions in a vacuum: The vacuum of our own sum-totality. Whereas shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy allow relational logic to resolve questions of cause and effect, Wilfred puts the most dire human struggles and initiatives into an abstract framework that permits neither escape nor the comfort of familiarity. It puts questions of perspective and first principles in play, and in doing so makes navigation of the Big Questions—the nature of evil; the circularity of reason; the degradation of the human spirit over time and trials; the impossibility of replicating or representing individual experience—next to impossible. In other words, it’s unrelentingly lifelike. On its face, it’s the least plausible thing on television; at its core, it’s at once the most essential and most mimetic.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.