WILFRED: L-R: Elijah Wood as Ryan and Jason Gann as Wilfred. CR: FX.

Dark Comedies: On ‘Wilfred’ and Mental Illness

Note: This post contains spoilers about the series finale of “Wilfred.” 

As common as it is, depression is something we’re still not comfortable discussing. The word elicits stereotypical imagery of mopiness, rainy days or, if you’re me, bouncing balls and floating bathrobes.

I say that not to discount depression, but rather to point out how there’s little recognition, especially in media representations, of depression as a complex, multifaceted illness. In truth, depression comes in a spectrum and expresses itself in a myriad of ways — which is why the new Netflix original series “BoJack Horseman” is making such an impression.

As explained by Margaret Lyons in this story on Vulture, “BoJack” is quietly setting itself apart from its cartoon brethren by becoming, intentionally or not, the “funniest show about depression ever.” The show focuses on narcissistic ex-TV star BoJack who, despite his intelligence and sharp sense of humor, is often insecure and lonely. (And just about everyone around him feels similarly.) Even his small mannerisms, Lyons notes, are common among those who have depression, and the show as a whole serves as a handy “you’re not alone” tale.

The story came up at a pretty opportune time for me, as I just finished the final season of “Wilfred.” The show has a simple premise: boy tries to kill himself, meets girl, falls for her. The difference is, this guy befriends his crush’s dog…who he happens to see as an Australian man in a dog costume.

From there, the series follows our protagonist, Ryan, as he tries to navigate life on the surface — his crush on his neighbor, his problems with his sister and father — while also looking inward to question his sanity and the purpose of this new friend who seems to sabotage his life more than he helps.

Getting to the bottom of Wilfred’s existence takes a lot of turns, including a plotline in which Wilfred may or may not be a god worshipped by a cult, but as it turns out, the final outcome is a simple one.

Wilfred is nothing more than an expression of Ryan’s mental illness.

It’s no secret Ryan has issues. He tries to kill himself in the first episode and tries again at the end of the series. At the end of the first season, he learns the basement of his house, which served as the hangout spot for him and Wilfred, never existed.

But Wilfred was a real dog the entire time, meaning everything Ryan suffered at the paws of his best friend, from swirlies to shock collars, was actually self-inflicted. And all those conversations and arguments the two shared (and even a middle finger or two) weren’t exchanges, but one-way dialogues.

Ryan is naturally unsettled and crestfallen by this discovery, and his first reaction is to abandon all notion of Wilfred by literally running away from the problem. Yet a life without Wilfred is a lonely, “ordinary” existence. In the final moments of the series, he agrees to keep Wilfred around in his head and his life. He realizes this acceptance, more than getting the dream girl or anything else, can make him happy.

At its core, “Wilfred” is a buddy comedy with a dark heart. But in the same way “Bojack Horseman” explores depression through a new lens, so too does “Wilfred” shed a new light on mental illness — in particular, by presenting it as manageable and, perhaps, part of a fulfilled life.