Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wilfred and the Beauty of Miserable People

Wilfred reminds me of how the TV industry only feels it can present shows to an audience as a comedy, a fantasy, a procedural, or a serialized arc. Wilfred was marketed as a comedy and like many comedies today, it included a gimmick to help the show get greenlit and help sell it to audiences: Lonely boy has an abnormal relationship with dog of beautiful girl next door wherein he sees him as man in a dog suit and can have conversations with him.

However, other than the occasional situational humor that arises from seeing a dog with anthropomorphic  (Disclaimer: I'm about 75% sure I correctly used that word in context) qualities do dog things (covering some of the same territory as Family Guy, no less), this isn't really a comedy. At least, I don't see it as such. I see the gimmick as a dramatic one.

We tend to think of a gimmick as something more prevalent in comedies, but biopics and biopic-like character pieces like to present themselves as a story about someone with a certain type of disability (e.g. Sam I Am, Beautiful Mind, My Left Foot), someone with an unusual delusion (e.g. Melvin and Howard, Informant, also Beautiful Mind)  or someone who's just plain miserable (e.g. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia, Rachel Getting Married, Julia).

The third class, unusually miserable people, presents somewhat of a challenge for entertainment purposes.

Let's look at the above examples: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is presented as a societal deconstruction of the happy American family image a la Douglas Sirk. It also was made interesting because it featured the two most glamorous stars of its day "uglying it up" so to speak. Sylvia (a Gwyneth Paltrow biopic of suicidal author Sylvia Plath) is historical fiction and so it has value in its authenticity. Lastly Julia (a little-seen 2009 Tilda Swinton film often confused with the 2009 release Julie & Julia) or Rachel Getting Married take a clinical approach and analyze the why of the person's despair.

Wilfred has his comic moments, sure, and some of them hit better than others. His love of Matt Damon is one of those running gags that definitely works for me. The ease with which he can get to second base with women and the enjoyment he gets from it, on the other hand, feels kind of awkward. Other times, the pacing of gags is so far apart that you're not sure if it's a comedy at all.

In those cases, I don't think it really is. It's a sad story and I'd argue is that Wilfred is what keeps the show ingestible. He's a narrative balancing force in what otherwise would be a very depressing story. Sometimes, dialogue forces you to put a positive spin on depressive tendency and by talking through his problems with Wilfred, Ryan is creating a positive spin.

With that in mind, I very much enjoyed Wilfred from the point of view of a drama. It speaks a lot of truth about the nature of depression and the power of defense mechanisms to help us cope. Ryan is very unique in the sense that there might not be a character on television who starts out from such a hopeless place. Even better, the writers aren't in a hurry to move him out of that sense of hopelessness*. There's a typical girl-next-door setup, but the usual will-they won't-they tension that's become cliched at this point, doesn't even seem like a plausible direction for Ryan. Ryan has his occasional triumphs, but his depression is somewhat of a constant with the character and that's wonderful because it aligns closer with real life

*Ed. Note: I'm only up to episode 11 of the 13 episodes that have aired so far, so in the event that by the 12th episode, he's singing and dancing and has turned his life around, I am ill-informed

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