Wilfred smokes pot and drinks and lies and steals and, like many a pooch,… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
In "Wilfred," a new comedy premiering Thursday on FX, Elijah Wood, who was Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, plays Ryan, an unhappy young man who, as we meet him, is trying to kill himself. Ryan has had some sort of breakdown or bad luck, the details of which are left vague — we do see that he is on the stated third draft of his suicide note — but this is a show where explanation is less important than action. (The tension between the two will become a recurring theme, in fact.) It requires some fuzziness to work. And it works very well.
In the midst of failing to die, Ryan is paid a visit by his new neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), to whom he has never spoken. Jenna has a dog named Wilfred, who is played, in a big furry dog suit, by Jason Gann, who created and played the part in an Australian series of the same name. (The Independent Film Channel has the first season posted on its website.) Only Ryan and the audience see him as a man in a dog suit, and hear him speaking English. The other characters treat him as a dog.
It is a sort of twisted version of "Harvey," the James Stewart movie about a big invisible rabbit, and of "Mister Ed," the 1960s talking-horse sitcom. But it is also every story in which a meek or hidebound personality learns how to live from a bolder, less conventional one. (Ryan is getting in touch with his inner dog.) It is "The Producers" and "Harold and Maude," "Thelma & Louise" and "The In-Laws," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Topper."
Wilfred smokes pot and drinks and lies and steals and, like many a pooch, sticks his nose where it does not belong — though in much of this, and in his mocking tone and more pointed troublemaking, there seems to be some roundabout Zen-masterish dedication to Ryan's improvement, even if it comes at the cost of a black eye. (For Ryan, that is.) At the same time he has a dog's natural hopefulness and enthusiasm, and frustration when they're quashed.
"It's the 21st century — I can't believe these racist rules still exist," he spits, confronting a no-dogs sign at the beach.
There is the occasional practical matter of remembering not to include Wilfred in the conversation when a third party is around, but by not belaboring the point — Ryan is not crazy, there is nothing supernatural afoot — the show stays fresh, the gimmick fades. The humor is frequently scatological or sexual, but a mitigating sweetness enfolds it all. (The American "Wilfred" is more aspirational than its Australian forebear, which was originally about the fight between a man and a dog for a woman's attention.) Ryan is a good guy, and Wilfred, despite his bad habits, is a good dog.
David Zuckerman, who adapted the series, has written many, many episodes of "Family Guy," a fact I will not hold against him. (There is a talking dog on that show too.) Randall Einhorn, who directed most of the series' 13 episodes, has worked on "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" (and another, less successful Australian remake, "Kath & Kim"). The tone they have set between them is original and effective.
Wood, who has not exactly been burning up the screen in the eight years since "The Return of the King" was released, has found his best role since doing the Puppet Master dance on "Yo Gabba Gabba!" As a soft-centered ordinary guy being led into dangerous places and self-awareness, he is not, after all, a world away from Frodo. And Gann is so good and funny, so casually canine, it would have been senseless not to import him for the role. But it's also an advantage that he's an Australian in an otherwise American context; it makes him seem a little exotic, a little more "other," and also a little more dangerous. His country has a long acquaintance with convicts, after all.
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and sex)