There's no use trying to get around it: Wilfred is strange.
"It's not a nutshell show," star Elijah Wood tells TVGuide.com with a laugh when trying to succinctly explain the new comedy, which debuts Thursday at 10/9c on FX.
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The basics: Wood plays Ryan, a lawyer who, on the day after a failed suicide attempt, meets his new neighbor (Fiona Gubelmann) and, more importantly, her dog Wilfred. There's just one problem: While the rest of world sees Wilfred as an ordinary dog, Ryan sees him as man in a dog suit (Jason Gann).
Absurd? Maybe, but the show, an adaptation of an Australian series Gann co-created and starred in, is smart and darkly hilarious. But just in case, here's a few other things you should know about the show before you get started:
1. It's basically a buddy comedy. "A very screwed-up buddy comedy," Wood corrects. Ryan and Wilfred form an instant bond, mostly because Ryan is looking for someone to understand him, even if it's a talking dog. And although Wilfred is trying to shake Ryan out of his rut, his methods are often extreme. "His intentions are suspect all the time," Wood says of Wilfred. "You're never quite sure where he sits with Ryan — whether he's looking out for Ryan's best interest, or whether he's looking out for his own interest." Ultimately, however, Gann says Wilfred is more man's best friend. "Wilfred has this protective nature that didn't really exist in the Australian version," he says. "Wilfred was just a saboteur. In this, there's this loyalty and a real connection forms with Ryan."
Where might Wilfred rank among TV's greatest pets?
2. You're better off not questioning whether Wilfred's real. No one is more suspect than Ryan, Wood says. "Ryan is questioning whether or not he's hallucinating or if the pills worked and he's dead and this is the afterlife," he says. "He really doesn't understand what's going on. By the end, he ultimately accepts Wilfred into his life and doesn't really ask any more questions. One of the things I love most about the show is ... it accepts it and the audience, in turn, has to accept the conceit."
Gann says he would have trouble playing Wilfred if he were just a hallucination. "I really come from the perspective that Wilfred is real," he says. "He's this mystical creature and in his reality, he exists. No character plays the villain of their own story, and for Wilfred, he's the hero of his story."
3. It's not Two and a Half Men. If you haven't already guessed, this isn't your typical sitcom. While there are broad laughs (like most dogs, Wilfred likes to hump things), the comedy is often more clever than laugh-out-loud hilarious. "The humor is a little bit darker than American comedy," Wood says. "It's a little rough around the edges, but I don't think that that's necessarily unattractive to an American audience. "It does have that frat humor, but underneath all of that, there are also these very subtle layers."
Watch clips of Wilfred in our Online Video Guide
4. The show is very adult, but Gann says it appeals to a childlike imagination. Gann compares the show to fairy tales and says the audience is able to believe in Wilfred the way Ryan does because of an innate sense of imagination we're all born with. "I think that childlike element that audiences have within them is why I'm still playing the character after all this time," Gann says. (The original short film that inspired the Australian series was shot 10 years ago.) "People just love Wilfred. They don't talk about him like he's a dude in a suit. They talk about him like he's a real dog. But I guess the difference between him and The Three Little Pigs is that he smokes bongs and terrorizes people."
5. Dogs are like us! But Wilfred is also like dogs. A specific aspect of that imagination, Gann says, is a person's tendency to humanize their pets. "A lot of people relate to the humanness of their dog and that's why they get swept up in what he's thinking," Gann says. "When we do that, we have a lot to learn from dogs and so I try and bring that out." Then again, Gann says, "At the end of the day, Wilfred is still a dog, and a dog wants to eat, sh-- and have sex. He takes care of his own primal instincts before everything else. I'm really surprised what I can get away with in that dog suit that a human character just wouldn't get away with on TV."
Wilfred premieres Thursday at 10/9c on FX. Watch our video interview with Wood: