Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wilfred 1-10: Isolation

Wilfred is kind of bewildering until you realize it's a children's show for adults. And I mean that not in the Pixar way of "it's for kids, but there'll be an artsy first act and some double entendres for the grown-ups". Despite its often lewd humour, the plot of Wilfred goes something like this: an inexperienced young person encounters a talking animal that only he can see, and the animal teaches him life lessons while engaging in wacky misadventures. Seriously, I think that's also the plot of Blue's Clues. (Calvin and Hobbes too, while we're at it, although Hobbes doesn't teach too many life lessons.)

But there's also something warped about this structure, or at least its application to an adult protagonist. Children are supposed to have imaginary friends, but in adults it's considered a sign of psychosis, as was highlighted in the previous episode "Compassion". And Wilfred is kind of forced to cover its earnest morals with a thick layer of irony and soft humour, so as not to fully fall into that moralistic standpoint everyone learned to hate as a child. We all value (or know we're supposed to value) things like compassion and friendship, so instead of genuinely arguing for these Wilfred takes the structure of a morality lesson and twists it to the point where often the lesson is inverted or lost altogether. Although it claims the mantle much less vocally than something like Wonder Showzen, it is a deconstructive twist on children's television all the same.

"Isolation" begins, like all of its predecessors, with an epigraph. In a way the epigraph is like the "this week on" pre-credits segments on old TV shows, or the "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em" portion of a sermon. Here we get the lesson straight, without the machinations of plot and humour: everything that happens afterwards is a repetition or subversion of this message. I could copy out the quote here, but taking a screencap is marginally less effort and looks prettier, so here you go:

The Gortari quote is, with this (lack of) context, a bit ambiguous. Is isolation self-defeating because the real world always intrudes and shapes us? If so, it's hard to argue with. However, Ryan's isolation in the show is not forcibly interrupted by the outside world but is something he has to force himself to end, so it would seem that Wilfred is saying that isolation is possible, just bad -- something I have to take issue with. At the risk of sounding like a TV Troper here, everyone has different levels of desire for social contact, and condemning any of them is just needlessly judgemental. Of course, it's good to have bonds with other people, but that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you if you aren't at some sort of party every night. But in Wilfred, Ryan's friendlessness is portrayed as a sign of his broken spirit and failure to transition to adulthood, just as his unemployment and (to a lesser extent) pot habit is.

What works here is that "Isolation" is drawing on the inherent smallness of TV social circles. I recently watched through Undeclared and it's hard not to notice that, in contrast to the sprawling social circles of real-life college kids, these ones just hang out with the same five other people all the time. This is a product of limited cast budget and limited time for character development, but unless we imagine that these characters have plenty of other friends and acquaintances off-screen it's unrealistic, a difficulty inherent in the medium of not just television but fiction in general. This is doubly true for Wilfred, which has just 3-4 regular cast members (Fiona Gubelman and Dorian Brown seem to trade off cast member status, and as I'll mention later play basically the same role.) We only see Ryan interacting with Wilfred and humans that are required for the plot -- the question of "doesn't this guy have any friends?" kind of inevitably comes up.

I should also note that, much as the plots frequently undercut the expressed moral of the episode, this opening sequence throws the truth of the quotes it's espousing into question. The music is a kind of soft saccharine lilting, calling to mind childishness and naivete. The quote is typed in a typewriter-ish font (Courier New?) that calls to mind bookish officiality, and is directly contrasted with the more jagged font that the series title appears in. The quote is what we're supposed to learn, but Wilfred (both the series and the character) are something else, and have a wild nature that cannot be fully contained by the officiousness of prescribed morals.

Anyway, now that I've spent four paragraphs on the ten-second title card, let's move into the actual episode. Ryan wakes up abruptly in his basement, bong in hands, as though he's just awakened from a nightmare, although the audience is not privy to what this dream is. Ryan is woken up from his stupor both literally and figuratively by Jenna and her attempt to coax him out of his house. Ryan's retreat into solitude is not a part of "Isolation", which deals mainly with his attempt to escape said solitude, but it has been a part of the previous nine episodes: every episode ends with Ryan in the same basement he wakes up in at the start of "Isolation", doing the now-obligatory credits gags while smoking up with Wilfred. This has become as comfortable a setting for the audience as it has for Ryan. However, immediately "Isolation" hits us with the idea that this is actually a sad state to be in: the visual contrast is immediately established between Jenna's outside world, with its bright colours and sunshine, and the dingy interior world of Ryan. This is also reflected in the bodies of the two: Jenna's is model-perfect, while Ryan's is stained and dingy.

The plot of the episode quickly unfolds from there: the neighbourhood is having a block party, and Jenna and Wilfred implore Ryan to come in order to reconnect with other people. Ryan seems to live in a world of neighbourhood togetherness and community that harkens back to a lost golden age, with everyone else in the neighbourhood knowing each other and coming together for events. The directorial and cinematographical world of Wilfred is one straight out of a 50s real estate ad, although it's been in the background until now. Everything feels a little artificial, a little plastic, a little off-kilter. Ryan's descent into insanity may be justified by him being the last normal man in an abnormal world, where everyone is either grotesquely flawed (as antagonists in previous episodes have been) or Ken-and-Barbie perfect. With only two episode directors in the eleven episodes it's aired so far, it's obvious that Wilfred is a show that lays claim to a strong directorial voice, and the weird, almost cartoonish world of extremes it lives in is a big part of that voice.

The epitome of this is Jenna herself, a little angel who seems dedicated to bringing Ryan up into maturity. Like the other female lead, Ryan's sister Kristen, she has no interiority or character arc other than her relationship with Ryan. Jenna and Kristen seem to play the roles of good cop and bad cop -- Jenna gently nurtures Ryan and encourages him towards maturity with the carrot of her love, while Kristen is the nag who berates him for his failure to join the adult world. These are basically the two sides of the mother figure -- the sweet woman who loves you unconditionally, and the monster who is constantly demanding things of you, now neatly divided into two seperate women. The conflation of the roles of mother and lover, where the girlfriend is supposed to elevate her boyfriend and make him into an adult, has only become popular recently but is already noxiously familiar. We can probably blame a lot of that on Judd Apatow and company, but the elevation of masculine immaturity to an ideal comes from many angles. Wilfred at least views this immaturity as a problem -- there are really few points where we're supposed to think Ryan is cool, unlike your average Seth Rogen character -- but women are once again the solution to this problem instead of people in and of themselves.

Still, if Wilfred has yet to really complicate its matronly ladies, it quickly complicates the idea of suburban community established in the early parts of this episode.  After all of the cars on the block except his are broken into, the community begins ostracizing Ryan, accusing him of being the thief.  Community, "Isolation" suggests, is made up as much by who's left out as who's included.  There's a dark side to all the neighbourly togetherness -- after all, a friendly village is one scapegoat away from a lynch mob, and the scorn of those around you requires no definite evidence to provoke.  The outsider is an automatic target, as the moral community quickly gives way to community equaling morality.  At the end of the episode the robberies are blamed on a homeless man and Ryan is accepted into the community -- but we as an audience can't quite accept this as a happy ending.  For one thing, the community we see him so happily embracing is the same one that was one step short of a lynch mob earlier in the episode.