When is a show Not That Good and when is it just Not For Me? *
That's a question that has bedeviled me in the past, especially when it came to "Big Love," a show others raved about and I never liked, despite repeated viewings and attempts to appreciate what it was doing. When I find myself engaging in especially elaborate procrastination instead of writing a review, on occasion, I find that it's because my brain, on some level is thrashing around with the following question: Is the show I just watched actually bad, or is it not my cup of tea?
Now, don't get me wrong: When I actively dislike or like a show, it's not hard to tell, and I think I'm also able to recognize programs that have problems but also some redeeming features. My likes and dislikes might be different from yours, but I generally think my assessment mechanisms are functioning fine.
Still, once in a while I come across programs that appear to be fulfilling their mission statements perfectly adequately -- but I just don't care about those missions. Does that mean those shows are bad? Or is it that they just don't speak to me? You may consider it an evasion of my duties as a critic, but for a small number of shows, the only honest thing to do in certain cases is admit that I can't decide.
All of which is a very roundabout way of saying a new season of "Wilfred" begins Thursday, June 21 (for some inexplicable reason, the episode that airs at 10:30 p.m. ET on FX is billed as a sneak preview; the season proper begins 10 p.m. ET on June 28).
I think it's entirely possible to enjoy "Wilfred" if you derive pleasure from the interactions of its two central characters, Wilfred the dog (Jason Gann) and his human best friend, Ryan (Elijah Wood). Wilfred, who appears to Ryan as a man in a dog suit, is continually urging the more timid Ryan to step outside of his comfort zone and embrace his more animal urges; hijinks regularly ensue from Ryan's clumsy attempts to live the kind of go-for-the-gusto life that the rule-breaking Wilfred advocates.
You may find those hijinks vastly (or moderately) entertaining. For me, the dynamic between the willful Wilfred and the more tentative Ryan has become so repetitive that I just can't take it any more. I watched the first two episodes of Season 2, but at this point, I'm done with the show. The core friendship and "Wilfred's" lighthearted take on FX's transgressive-male paradigm just don't do anything for me.
You may say, "But Gann and Wood are such good performers!" No argument here. "But the rest of the cast -- particularly Fiona Gubelmann, Chris Klein and Allison Mack -- do solid work! What about Robin Williams, who guest stars in this week's episode -- he's amusing, right?" Sure, I guess so. On paper, it all appears to be functional. In reality, I find myself uninterested in Ryan's minuscule problems and Wilfred's repeated attempts to hector or nag Ryan into taking more chances with his narrow little life.
In Thursday's episode, and indeed in the series as a whole, "Wilfred" asks somewhat prominent questions about the reality of what Ryan is experiencing. Everyone else treats Wilfred as a regular dog, sort of -- yet Gubelmann, who plays Ryan's neighbor Jenna, pushes a wheelchair holding Wilfred at one point. In her mind, is it a dog wheelchair? Do those even exist? Does Wilfred exist, in either human or dog form?
If I was more interested in the show, I might enjoy pondering those questions. As it is, they just exhaust the scant amount of patience I have for this slight comedy. If you don't find "Wilfred" tedious and if you find it amusing rather than repetitive, that's great, and I'm happy for you.
I wish I could enjoy it, but for me, this dog won't hunt.
* My views on "Breaking Bad" evolved significantly after this piece was written. I now view it as one of the greatest TV shows ever made. And that's one of the best parts of this job -- nothing's ever static and I get to reassess shows as they progress and evolve.
Two final notes: Ryan McGee and I will discuss "Wilfred," "Girls," "The Newsroom" and other programs in next week's Talking TV podcast. And here's the sneak peek of "Wilfred's" second season, which is a full-length episode with guest star Robin Williams: