I’m swamped tonight so this dual review is going to be a bit short. Apologies or you’re welcome, depending on how you typically view my reviews!
Comedies are supposed to be funny. This is a general rule that like to live by, but the world of television sure does love to muck up the already problematic definitions of genre, type, formula or running time. HBO and Showtime have been airing 30-minute dramas that they submit to award shows’ comedy categories for years now, Glee gets labeled as a comedy come Emmy time as well and yet, some of the best dramas end up having consistently funny moments that stand up to or surpass whatever it is things like Entourage or Hung do. Our signifies for what constitute a drama or a comedy are becoming increasingly blurred, but that’s OK when the series are good at whatever it is that they do.
But whereas so many of the cable “comedies” are not really good at anything, neither drama nor comedy, FX has created a block of programming that appears ready to surpass typical definitions of either basic genre. Louie became this sometimes hysterical, sometimes surprisingly uncomfortable and honest, always compelling series in its first season and FX has smartly paired it with the U.S. adaptation of the Australian series, Wilfred, which might be the most surreal, odd live action series of recent memory.
In their first episodes of season, both Louie and Wilfred show how series labeled “comedy” can turn in episodes that don’t provide the obvious kind of laughs we expect. But unlike the plodding pointlessness of HBO’s non-Curb “comedies” or the pure melodramatics of something like Nurse Jackie or The Big C, these two series find a way to be weird and serious but also randomly hilarious and purposeful. I wouldn’t call either “Pregnant” or “Happiness” “funny” in the most traditional sense, but they are exceptionally compelling, which is really all the matters to me when I’m watching television. The labels and definitions ultimately do not mean as much; if you’re keeping my attention, I could care less what TV Guide calls you. Genre is not inherent to any series and I don’t have to view Louie and Wilfred as comedies just because they would enter into that part of the Emmy nominations.
In any event, I didn’t laugh too often while watching either of these episodes tonight, but I am fairly certain that isn’t the point. Louie has already established itself as a weekly 30-minute space where anything can happen and in tonight’s episode, very little actually does. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight on “Pregnant,” which features a really great teaser sequence with Louie and his daughter, but the episode isn’t particularly exciting or engaging in the traditional sense.
Louie’s pregnant sister shows up for a visit, they have a somewhat moving conversation about the challenges of parenting and child-bearing in general and then all hell breaks loose when the sister appears to be having some sort of issue related to her pregnancy. Louie’s previously unknown neighbors help calm him down on the frantic path to the hospital, but ultimately, his sister just had to let out one extended fart. Yeah, “Pregnant” is more or less powered by 10 minutes of intense drama capped off by a fart joke. I’m not entirely sure that I loved it by any means, but just the fact that Louis C.K. would do something like that, in the premiere episode no less, is really interesting to me. Even though I didn’t laugh at all once the sister started freaking out, I was still completely involved in what was happening to her, which is a testament to C.K’s abilities behind the camera and as an editor. Just a fantastically odd episode of television.
And speaking of that, Wilfred. There’s really no other way to describe the series that sees Elijah Wood’s Ryan talk to a man dressed in a dog costume who everyone else in the world sees just as a dog than “fantastically odd.” Unlike Louie, Wilfred doesn’t quite know what it wants to be in the long-term, which is totally fine, but makes for a scatter-brained pilot episode. “Happiness” is sometimes darkly funny (Ryan’s attempts to kill himself most notably), other times its full of broad stoner comedy and even other times it tries to spit philosophical about what it means to be in charge of your own life after years of letting others steer the ship. I don’t even understand how that really exists in one 25-minute block, but Wood and Jason Gann (who also played Wilfred in the original version as well) have palpable, charming chemistry with one another so it almost comes together here.
I’m not sure how Wilfred works in the long-term or how audiences are going to respond to it, but the premise is so original and well, weird, that I cannot help but be excited for what the series could be in a half-dozen episodes. Right now, I have no clue what a weekly episode of the Wilfred will look like (I have no real knowledge of the Australian version), but I do hope that the series figures out a way to balance the different elements and tones it introduces within short order in the pilot episode.
Louie quickly figured out how to tell stories that skipped around between funny, poignant, uncomfortable, heady, simple and complex and with time, I think Wilfred can as well. Louie‘s best episodes in season one were more compelling than they were funny and with its psychological underpinnings, it is clear that Wilfred wants to reach that kind of level of storytelling. Even if it doesn’t come close to the greatness of something like Louie‘s “God” or “Bully,” I think we have to respect FX and the series’ team for bringing this oddity to American television. It might not fit into the traditional constraints or assumptions about “30-minute” series or “comedies,” but that’s OK. And it is certainly better than Entourage or Hung. So there’s that.