Seriously, who would have thought that one of the most successful descendants of Lost would be a series about a depressed young man who befriends a coarse, Australian troublemaker dressed like a dog?
Point of clarification—this is not to say Wilfred’s Season Four premiere is rife with time jumps, Smoke Monsters or Matthew Fox panting (though “Daddy Issues” did make the cut). The writers certainly are familiar with the show, as evidenced by this scene. That being said, more than the dozens of other programs that so desperately tried to ape that seminal ABC show, Wilfred firmly understands the simple element that made it so endearing—relatable characters placed in extraordinary and mysterious circumstances. Too often, people focus on the latter rather than the former. In lesser hands, the American remake of Wilfred could just have easily have been little more than a broad comedy peppered with an assortment of hacky dog gags; instead, the show’s creative team took this absurdist premise and infused it with a sense of pathos, fleshing out the characters and unexpectedly building an intriguing mythology in the process.
In short, Wilfred shows us that once you create engaging characters, then the expanded universe and deepening mysteries are just icing on the cake. With its surprising depth and rich characterization, the show more than earns the right to use such esteemed quotations at the beginning of each episode.
After several ups and downs, Wilfred’s third year concluded with a finale that promptly jettisoned the show into even crazier territory. Not only did Ryan learn that father Hank had been spying on him, but a scuffle with Wilfred ended with Hank’s untimely death. When Ryan tried to break away from Wilfred, he unearthed a mysterious letter in his dad’s office that lead him to what appeared to be an old statue of a Wilfred-like mandog.
The hour-long season four premiere, consisting of the episodes “Amends” and “Consequences,” certainly does not let up on the ambitious nature of the series. With “Amends,” the show runs the distinct risk of taking itself a bit too seriously. Most of the episode is spent exploring the repercussions of the previous year’s finale in ways that aren’t exactly “gut-busting.” Despite the sharp focus and occasional somber tone, however, the half-hour still manages to pull in enough humorous banter and off-the-wall concepts that prevent its exposition-heavy nature from feeling overly weighty.
At first, the writers appear to pull a Bobby Ewing-in-Dallas and go with the “it-was-all-a-dream” scenario. After finding the statue and being chased by a group of menacing-looking anti-Wilfreds, Ryan awakens to find himself at the bottom of the stairs. Wilfred explains that he fell down during their fight and bumped his head. Relieved that Hank is still alive, Ryan takes this as a sign to end his relationship with Wilfred and accepts his father’s job opportunity.
Despite Ryan’s steadfast desire to be rid of Wilfred’s influence, however, elements of his dream begin creeping into reality. When Wilfred investigates and comes upon a letter just like the one from Ryan’s dream, the two decide to rendezvous with the envelope’s sender at the given address. Here, they stumble upon three teens dressed as dogs. The trio explain that they took Wilfred’s posting as a sign that someone wanted to participate in an old ceremony once performed by a cult called the Flock of the Grey Shepard. As evidenced by the teens’ costumes, the cult seemed fond of the kind of mandog attire demonstrated by Wilfred. Ryan returns back to the city to find that his father has been suspiciously killed in a car crash, thus re-contextualizing his dream as a premonition. Looking through his father’s file, he discovers a photograph depicting the mandog statue in the midst of a gorge.
If “Amends” aims for mythology building, then “Consequences” aims more for general laughs. Moreover, the episode works towards exploring the romantic plotlines of last year’s arc. Along with the possibility that his father may have had some ties to a dangerous cult, Ryan must also face the awkwardness and confusion stemming from his unexpected kiss with Jenna. The situation is made all the worse by the near ubiquitous presence of Drew, Jenna’s husband.
To Ryan’s dismay, Drew even ends up accompanying him and Wilfred when they decide to explore the gorge from his father’s picture. Here, the show once again highlights how effective Chris Klein can be when given the right role. Playing the “kind of douchey-yet-kind-of-sweet” persona perfectly, Klein makes Drew’s chipper dopiness an excellent counterpoint to Wilfred’s dryer (and darker) personality. “I was a boy scout for eight years,” he proudly proclaims at one point. “Which means nothing except he’s almost certainly been molested,” the dog promptly counters.
Given this dynamic, things go about as well as you expect. After running from a swarm of bees and accidentally knocking Drew over a ledge, a frustrated Ryan inadvertently lets loose about the kiss with Jenna. Heartbroken, Donnie takes off back to Wisconsin while Jenna—now furious at Ryan—follows right behind him in an attempt to save her marriage. Our hero has little time to mope, however, before a mysterious phone call warns him never to come near the area again, and that some sort of ransom has been doubled.
One of the most evident aspects of both episodes is the show’s mastery of visuals. Wilfred is a strange anomaly among cable shows. It may not have the inherently cinematic scope of a Mad Men or Breaking Bad or even the anything-goes visual experimentation of Louie, but its use of color (or lack thereof) and meticulous shot compositions continue to make for some of the most impressive, albeit underrated, cinematography currently on television.
With only ten episodes constituting its final season, the Wilfred writers have effectively allowed themselves space to build towards an impressive endgame. Each of the episodes plays like the kind of cliff-hanger-friendly, serialized installment you’d find in an Orphan Black, Scandal or, yes, a Lost. It’s telling that, at this point, there’s no end to the various ways in which the series could end. It could climax with Ryan and Wilfred facing off against an army of cultists or with a straightjacket-bound Ryan in padded room. I wouldn’t be horribly surprised one way or the other. Such is the charm and insanity of Wilfred.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.