Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wilfred 2-10: Honesty

The first season of Wilfred was substantially foused on Ryan's relationship with Jenna.  Not only is Jenna the impetus for the entire series, being the one who asks Ryan to look after Wilfred, but many first-season episodes were driven by Ryan's attempts to get close to Jenna or split her and Drew up.  In the second season, however, she's taken a bit of a backseat, to the point that it began to seem that every episode started with Wilfred explaining how Jenna was on vacation.  This was largely beneficial to the show, as Jenna doesn't really have that much comedic potential and the possible scenarios surrounding her were more or less exhausted in the first season.  But when she returns in "Honesty", not as a supporting character but a major one, it does feel as though Wilfred has returned to its roots.

This is actually the kind of episode that feels as though it should have been much earlier in the season, dealing with the fallout of the first season finale and not the barely-mentioned events of the second season thus far[1].  It relies heavily on knowledge of the cascading series of disasters that closed out the first season, which are a bit cloudy in even my memory.  On the other hand, this does fit into this season's overall arc of Ryan making amends and inching closer to becoming a normal human being.

The impetus of the plot is Jenna's attempt at regaining her journalistic credibility, but this quickly is transferred over to Ryan's own personal neuroses.  The genuine favour she asks of him would involve him talking with his father, one of Ryan's prevailing hang-ups, so of course that doesn't happen.  But Ryan's failure to overcome this fear for the girl he likes leads him into a guilt-driven attempt to fabricate a story, which naturally spirals into absurdity.

So far this is par for the course.  This is the basic comedic machine of the series: Jenna (sometimes replaced by Kristen or Amanda) incites Ryan to action, usually through guilt, and his errant attempts at making her happy are inflamed and made both absurd and disastrous by the intervention of Wilfred.  This is a very traditional sitcom structure, and its absurdism and dark comedy Wilfred is a very traditional comedy, right down to the moral of the week.  While you would never see a plotline involving the main character pretending to be a deranged cat murderer on, say, The Cosby Show, the underlying beats of the story -- for instance, the moment where Jenna thanks Ryan for his attempts to help but only aggravates his guilt for creating the problem -- are pretty similar.

That moral of the week is a little skewed here, however.  On the surface the story reinforces the preschool lesson about honesty being the best policy -- Ryan and Jenna finally come clean about their respective misdeeds, and it ultimately leads to a better relationship and less guilt.  What's more, this honesty also allows us as an audience to see the characters in a new way, in particular Jenna's admission that she was consciously manipulating Ryan throughout the first season.  This isn't really novel -- the hot girl who takes advantage of the weird guy with a crush on her is a well-worn one, probably driven by the tendency of screenwriters to be frustrated weird guys -- but it does suggest a sense of interiority that was absent from Jenna before.

But there's still a great deal of deceit that goes on and remains uncorrected at the end of the episode.  Jenna still has no idea that when Ryan looks at her dog he sees a foul-mouthed Australian in an animal suit.  If we look at illusion as a kind of metaphysical deceit, then Ryan still has no idea whether he can see Wilfred honestly, and Wilfred himself is a cauldron of deceit and tricks (as Ryan argues early in this episode, Wilfred lies to him all the time).  On a smaller scale, Jenna ends the episode without ever learning about Ryan's connection with the cat kidnappings or that Ryan never called his father.

So what's the take-away here?  Is the lesson that deception and illusion are wrong except for when they work out for the best, a la A Midsummer Night's Dream?  Is it just haphazard plotting undercutting the alleged larger message?  Neither explanation really satisfies me.

Rather, I think this reflects on Wilfred's idea of morality, which is probably most closely akin to Catholicism.  Honesty is not, in this episode, telling the absolute truth about everything.  Rather, honesty is about confession.  Ryan only can be honest by admitting that he is a sinner and asking for forgiveness.  Many other episodes of Wilfred follow the model of confession -- Ryan at first denies that he's doing anything wrong or suffering from any kind of sin (past episode titles: "Avoidance", "Anger", "Pride", "Fear"), and is healed by admitting his weakness in the episode's conclusion.

The Catholicism comparison also highlights why guilt is such an important driving device.  (This might come off as a joke, but I don't really mean it that way.)  Wilfred is the human (er, canine) embodiment of guilt, the voice in the back of your head always suggesting that you aren't living your life according to the moral code that you believe in.  This would explain the sometimes contradictory nature of the show's "lessons" -- guilt can get you no matter what you do, and there can even be paradoxical guilt over the failure to embrace new-age morality about putting the past behind you and living life to its fullest, which Wilfred advocates in the episodes where he isn't hounding Ryan for past misdeeds.  So maybe Wilfred isn't the figure of unrivaled id that he's usually taken for, but a strange kind of conscience (a superego, to go all Freudian).  If this is true, it's a conscience that is, perhaps like real consciences, constantly unsatisfied.  But the series suggests that maybe this kind of thinking can lead to positive results after all.

In this episode, everything works out because of Ryan's one act of honesty.  Now knowing what she experienced, Jenna is able to use that experience to sell a potentially hokey "investigative report" on pot candy.  The deceit that Ryan formerly embodied is transferred to the inanimate stick of candy.  (Its deceitful, destructive high is carefully separated from and contrasted with the open, inhibition-lowering pot that Ryan and Wilfred smoke at the end of almost every episode.)  Jenna regains her job, Ryan regains her friendship, and things inch closer to, if not a happy ending, at least the basically stable first-season status quo.

But of course, there are Ryan's still-unrevealed deceits, his inability to confront his father, and his potential insanity.  Wilfred's central characters only progress through two steps forward and one step back.  But that is, the show suggests, enough.

Next week: "A Challenge From the Devil! Fudo, Be the Demon for Those You Love!!"

[1]This along with Jenna's general scarcity this season is enough to make me suspect that there were some scheduling issues with Fiona Gubelmann, although I have no idea what else she has going on.

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