In the Writing #3: Undermining the Unreliable Narrator in <i>Wilfred</i>

Every written narrative has a narrator, the story's teller. Narrators can take a variety of forms; in some instances, they are active participants in the plot, in others they report details from a remove.
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A recurring discussion of writing and literary technique in television and film.

Every written narrative has a narrator, the story's teller. Narrators can take a variety of forms; in some instances, they are active participants in the plot, in others they report details from a remove. In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern explains that, "Unreliable narrators are untrustworthy characters who try to bend the story for their own reasons." While this may be oversimplifying, the idea is straightforward enough: unreliable narrators, whether knowingly (The Good Soldier) or unwittingly (Huckleberry Finn), deviate from the traditional expectation of objectivity, in some way presenting a singular, potentially inaccurate vision of the "reality" in which they exist. The intention in forcing readers to perceive the plot through the narrator's eyes is to cause them to evaluate why the truth has been distorted, and what these distortions say about the character.

Because film and television are visual, and thus don't require overt narrators as in literature, there has been debate over whether the concept is inherent to these forms. Some argue that the camera functions as a visual narrator, while others maintain that these media can only exhibit a conventional narrator via voice-over or some other kind of breaking of the fourth wall. Whatever feelings one may have on the subject, each film or episode of television showcases a host of authorial decisions that directly impact audience perception. Since there's no way to portray a story without a bias of some kind, it can be agreed that even if there's not a localized narrator, there is at least narration. Notice, for instance, how the camera movement in the Bob's Burgers clip below impacts the comedic tone without any actual change in plot or dialogue:

And it doesn't end with cinematography; sequencing, scoring, sound editing, and color grading are just a few of the elements that factor into the final product. Film has been able to replicate the unreliable narrator with relative ease -- 80-120 minutes is a manageable timeframe to present a skewed vision without calling attention to itself or falling apart -- while television has found it more problematic. Wilfred, FX's criminally under-watched Aussie import, not only offers an excellent example of unreliable narration in TV, it deconstructs the notion by questioning whether reliability can actually exist in narrative.

In the pilot, Ryan, the show's protagonist, attempts to commit suicide, and -- as far as we can tell -- fails. The next day, he discovers that he sees his neighbor's dog, Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit. At first, this may feel like familiar terrain, but the show foregoes the convenient coincidences that often accompany this sort of foregrounded surreal flourish. Instead, we find Ryan reeling from situations in which Wilfred has caused some sort of mischief or another -- ranging from all-in-good-fun to outright dangerous -- and now must improvise his way out of said situations without indicating what he fears will be regarded as a mental break (ie. blaming the dog for hacking his email to send messages to friends, family, and future roommates). So what does the show do next? It spirals deeper into its own madness, or imagination, or dream state, or purgatory -- or whatever we're to believe the world of Wilfred in fact is.

Traditionally, using mental instability to color a specific character's perspective (and by proxy, the audience's) is called "Through the Eyes of Madness"; it's essentially an exaggerated iteration of the unreliable narrator. But Ryan's do-gooder straight man to Wilfred's antics indicates that the show isn't strictly interested in portraying mental decay a la The Bell Jar, though it certainly doesn't hesitate to go there. Because we only see Ryan briefly pre-suicide attempt -- and his state at that time is understandably to be held suspect -- we have no way of knowing exactly what we are seeing play out. In other words, we've stepped back from "Through the Eyes of Madness"; we don't even know if madness is what we're looking through. If the camera is the visual narrator, who says it's presenting the "truth?" Who says it's not? Is it portraying an "objective" perspective that simply focuses on Ryan, or is it attempting to show us Ryan via Ryan's own, potentially loony perspective? Did his initial suicide attempt land him in some sort of alternate reality or purgatory, or is Wilfred's presence symptomatic of Ryan's psychosis, as we are sometimes led to believe? Is there a chance he's actually sane, and some sort of magic is at play? On the other hand, if he is flat-out nutty, why is he seeing what he sees? What does this say about his subconscious?

All that doesn't even address Wilfred himself, who happens to be one of the most interesting, dynamic characters ever to grace television. Is he trying to help Ryan become a better person, as the after-school special feeling of the show (episode titles are all abstract ideas that are in some way dealt with during the episode, the score is dreamily youthful) might indicate, or is he just manipulating him for his own will? He operates on dog logic, so there'd be an air of total unpredictability about him even if we weren't wondering if he's just a figment of Ryan's imagination. For every "answer" Wilfred offers, two new questions spring up. Some have expressed frustrations with the show's ethos -- and for good reason -- what's the point in all the misdirection and red herrings? Are the creators just having a joke on us?

To address that, let me briefly detour to an essay David Foster Wallace wrote about David Lynch, called "David Lynch Keeps His Head." In it, Wallace explains that what makes Lynch such a "heroic auteur" is his ability to straddle the space between entertainment and concept (while existing purely as neither), thereby undermining expectations that audiences bring to the viewing experience. Wallace writes:

The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch's films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don't. This is why his best films' effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We're defenseless in our dreams too.)

This may in fact be Lynch's true and only agenda -- just to get inside your head. He seems to care more about penetrating your head than about what he does once he's in there. Is this good art? It's hard to say. It seems -- once again -- either ingenuous or psychopathic. It sure is different, anyway.

In similar fashion, it's these blatant, rudderless interrogations of the human experience that makes Wilfred one of the most high-concept shows on television. Like Lynch's work, much of Wilfred is intended to be "experienced rather than explained." Confusion is not just for comedy; it's one of the show's primary artistic interests. As such, it posits that narrative reliability is a false construct, something we hide behind because it's simpler and escapist. It demonstrates this idea by presenting narration that is blatantly unreliable and then, instead of moving toward greater clarity, undermines its pre-established insanity. To say that this is its only goal would be a misstep, but it's certainly the most novel. Still, why is this deconstruction important to the casual viewer? What's the point, exactly?

Maybe for all the show's complexities, inanities, and otherwise, the underlying idea is pretty simple. Living -- even for Southern California, J.D.-bearing suburbanites -- is a bizarre, complicated thing. Each of us has an expansive inner-world beyond daily routine, a consciousness (and subconscious) as capable of rich imagination and fun as doubt and mania, with emotional ranges that can surprise even ourselves. Network sitcoms often depict experiences intended to appeal to mass audiences, using comedy-via-generality as its uniting force. Wilfred, meanwhile, goes for the opposite: an experience so singular it's plural, where even instability, psychosis, and unreliability aren't reliable, where its protagonist continually questions if his actions are right, normal, or irrational -- and then questions what any of those things mean. Sounds a bit like life, doesn't it? Maybe I'm just crazy.

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