FX's new comedy is the weirdest show you'll watch all summer, or maybe ever. The hilarity kicks off with — hee hee — a suicide attempt gone wrong. Unable to mix a potent enough pill smoothie, aimless ex-lawyer Ryan (Wood) finds salvation in the form of Wilfred (Jason Gann), a dog to the outside world that Ryan (and only Ryan) sees as a pushy, pot-smoking Aussie dude in an unconvincing dog suit. Wilfred then literally hounds Ryan, showing him all the joyful things (dead possums, anyone?) missing in his empty life.
"Wilfred's sort of a f---ed-up life coach," Wood says over coffee at a Los Angeles café near where the show shoots. A bored-looking Shih Tzu with ribbons on its head suns itself under the next table. Wood smiles; the Shih Tzu goes grrr. Wood is not a dog owner himself, but he gets the appeal. "We learn so much from pets and Ryan is constantly bettering — and worsening himself, too — because of Wilfred," he says.
Wood is still as sprightly and sparkly eyed as he was in the Lord of the Rings days, but at 30 there's something more grown-up about him: the studious Oliver Peoples horn rims, the thoughtful way he sips his espresso. "I knew instantly when I met him that Elijah was the right guy to do an existential comedy like Wilfred," says Gann, who cocreated and starred in the cult Australian hit that inspired the American version. "He's got a world going on behind his eyes."
That's important since so much of what unfolds on the half-hour comedy takes place inside Ryan's head. Struggling in his career and shut down by his overbearing family (his ob-gyn sister, Kristen, played by Dorian Brown, constantly tells Ryan what to do), he sees things in his neighbor's dog that help him overcome his weaknesses and fears. But it creates a Snuffleupagus situation.
"Ryan's the only one who sees how rude and crude Wilfred actually is" — the human Wilfred nuzzles curvy waitresses and curses like a sailor (they let you do that on FX). "Stuff that's cute for a dog to do is kinda nasty when a grown man does it," Wood says.
And Wilfred definitely gets raunchy. The man-dog humps a teddy bear, sniffs things he absolutely should not and stumbles upon his neighbor's secret stash of marijuana and yells, "We're gonna need a bigger bong!" (For the record, the "pot" smoked on the show is a blend of herbs and tea leaves, Wood says.) "I'm constantly saying, 'Wait. Did we just say that on TV? I mean, did a dog just say... I mean, did a man in a dog suit just... Oh, just go with it.'"
Wilfred is one audacious puppy of a show. Imagine The Shaggy Dog by the writers and directors behind Family Guy and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. "I love that there's nothing conventional about Wilfred as a comedy," says Wood, who was itching to do TV after years making movies. "Some of the best acting is on cable TV right now," he says, singling out Breaking Bad, Mad Men and True Blood. "I read a bunch of network comedies and they all started sounding the same. Then I read Wilfred and it exploded off the page."
Wood isn't done with movies. He returns to New Zealand soon to shoot The Hobbit. "Those movies were hugely influential in my development as a person, but I laugh sometimes at how big a deal the Rings are for other people," he says. In an interview recently, a woman asked him to compare Frodo and Ryan. "I did my best, but it's not like I think about Frodo much anymore. It was eight years ago. I've moved on."
True, but having a marquee Hollywood name on Wilfred certainly helps the new show. "Elijah definitely opened doors as far as getting great guest stars," Gann says. Chris Klein from American Pie turns up as the übercompetitive boyfriend of Wilfred's cute-but-daffy owner, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann). Ed Helms (The Office) guests as the owner of Who Let the Dogs Inn, a doggie day-care facility Wilfred can't wrap his shaggy head around. Parks and Recreation's Rashida Jones does a stint as a hospital volunteer who puts Ryan and Wilfred to work as care companions for hospice residents. Other guests include Mary Steenburgen as Ryan's free-spirited mom and Jane Kaczmarek as a cougarish attorney with an eye for out-of-work dogsitters.
The Shih Tzu under the next table has suddenly gone from bored to full-on bark mode. Wood takes it as his cue to exit. He smiles and leaves as the dog keeps yapping. It's hard not to think something strange just happened between the two of them — something nobody else could see.
Wilfred airs Thursdays at 10/9c on FX.