US Wilfred premieres tonight; Renegade Films interview

Wilfred was rejected by every television network twice,” Tony Rogers, director of the Renegade Film’s sitcom tells Encore. “I don’t know how many DVDs with dog collars we sent out, minimum of a hundred.”

Tonight the American version of the show, starring Jason Gann back in the dog suit (Aussie accent intact) and The Lord of the Ring’s Elijah Wood as his neighbour Ryan, airs on Eleven.

The Australian version, created and written by Gann and fellow actor Adam Zwar originally as a short film in 2002 for Tropfest, was eventually picked up by Matt Campbell at SBS and the first series aired in 2007. Co-Executive Producer of Renegade, Joe Connor (#30 in Encore’s Power 50) says smugly “Now it’s done two seasons here and 13 episodes in the US.” Not to mention the four AFIs the Australian version has won.

The Renegade team sold the format to US cable channel FX, however Connor and his brother Ken remain Executive Producers on the American show. Premiering last Thursday in the States, it received great initial reviews with the New York Times’ Mike Hale writing, “Some shows aspire to cult status; this one goes straight there, practically bypassing the need to be broadcast at all.”

“It was their highest rating comedic pilot in over seven years,” Says Joe’s brother and fellow EP, Ken Connors. “It rated 2.5 million views with an encore performance of 1.3 million later that night, so 3.8 million viewers watched it on Thursday night.”

In FX, says Joe, “It was obvious to us we found the right people to partner with. They were really well credentialed, David Zuckerman had done The Family Guy, so we thought they would retain all the sensibilities in the program that were important to us and the original creators. Once you find the right people to do it, you let them do it. We saw the pilot and we commented on the pilot but we were very aware they had to make an American version for an American audience, otherwise they should have just run ours – which we would have been perfectly happy if they had – but that’s the point of the format deal.

The American version will retain that dark edge, with Ryan attempting suicide as the show opens. “We see the dog,” adds Rogers, “within the first minute and then he sits down with Elijah Wood and pulls a bong out of a bag. I would think that’s pretty nutty on a semi-mainstream network.”

Where Kath & Kim failed to find an audience with its American version, the Renegade team are confident of their format. “The concept of a dog who can talk to a man is a very strong, central concept.” Says Joe Connor, even though at its centre is “a universal story of a dysfunctional love triangle.”

“I see the show in that great period of television like Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, Mr Ed,” says Rogers. “They’re all rock solid television concepts that can work anywhere at any level and I think that’s why Wilfred is so special. It’s a great television show. It comes from Australia but it can be adapted worldwide – even the Russians and Germans are interested in it.”

As for tonight, Ken Connors says, “The Australian Wilfred has developed a huge social networking fan base, it’s been quite extraordinary so there’s probably about 60,000 people who will watch it. Eleven gets around 5% audience share. You would expect them to do about that, if not better.

Producer of the Australian show, Jen Livingstone says, “SBS has always run our show at 10.30-11 timeslots. We’ve never had anything earlier than that – and Eleven are showing theirs at 9.30, so that’s going to have a big impact.”

Rogers hopes that with the American show becoming a success stateside, it gets the ball rolling for Australian television productions overseas. “We really do hope that it broadens America’s receptiveness to Australian creative programs, and are more receptive to using programs from Australia as a whole. Chris Lilley has done that very well. And we hope it gives writers and directors more acceptance in the United States.”

However, as Ken Connors says, “Something to remember with hindsight is that our version was written for an Australian audience, theirs for an American audience.”

That being said, it’ll be interesting to see how Australian’s perceive the US Wilfred – will we connect with him, or will we see him go to the dogs.

UPDATE: Wilfred rated 202,000, ranking 14 on the digital channels but didn’t make it into the Top 50 overall for the night’s viewing.


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