By Ken Tucker
June 24, 2011 at 11:01 AM EDT

On Thursday night, FX introduced a comedy hour consisting of two shows: Wilfred, a new sitcom starring Elijah Wood, and the second-season premiere of Louie, Louie C.K.’s achingly funny series.

Wilfred has received mixed reviews — among TV critics, it’s probably the summer’s most divisive sitcom this side of Ice Loves Coco (I’m kidding, Ice-T!). Wilfred is an American version of an Australian sitcom co-created by Jason Gann, the man who plays the title character. Gann’s Wilfred is a guy in a dog costume — at least, that’s what he looks like to us and to Wood’s Ryan. To everyone else in the show, Wilfred is just a regular, frisky dog. No, he’s more than that: The canine is a snarky jerk who likes to sit around taking hits off a bong, urging Ryan to join him. Ryan does; the entire show plays to a slack, stoner rhythm.

Ryan, lonely and horny, accepts the ambivalent friendship of Wilfred, who actually belongs to Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), an attractive neighbor and, like everyone else, simply sees Wilfred as a lovable hound. Wood does a lot of the sort of pop-eyed, soulful staring he did on the big screen as Frodo, to lesser effect here. Each episode is titled after a state of mind that becomes the theme of the half hour — “Happiness,” “Trust,” “Fear,” etc. But the dog-costume sight gag becomes tiresome quickly, as does the idea of a dog making constant getting high jokes. Gann plays it insufferably laid-back — this is one of those performers who thinks gesturing with intentional vagueness toward a joke (doggy sex; bong hits), and then repeating the gesture a lot, is intrinsically funny. It doesn’t work for me; I find this style irritating.

But Elijah Wood is a much bigger star than Louis C.K., so it makes sense for FX to program Wilfred before Louie. Louie‘s first season ratings weren’t great, so if Wilfred’s lead-in draws more people to Louie, I say: Long live the man in the dog suit. Because Louie‘s episode on Thursday night verged on great. Louie C.K. continues to turn his life (as a divorced dad with two kids) into vivid, surprising, alert art.  Writing, directing, editing, and starring in this low-budget look at a lonely, single stand-up comic, C.K. manages to be both aggressive and disarming about the frustrations of being a parent and a single guy. It’s by no means original, at this point, to state ambivalent feelings about one’s kids (if someone else hadn’t already written Go the F— to Sleep, Louis might have), but C.K. is probably the only comedian around right now who can make that commingled feeling of love-frustration-rage that a parent experiences work as raucous comedy.

Last night’s episode would have been terrific if it had just been about Louie making meals for his kids intercut with stand-up bits about divorce, parenthood, and friendship. The scene in which he tries to explain to one daughter why the concept of “It’s not fair” doesn’t work in real life might have been, in the hands of a less confident craftsman, mean or clumsy or mawkish; instead, it was exhilaratingly loving. Combine that with the scenes between Louie and the across-the-hall neighbors he’d never met plus a choice fart joke, and you had one choice half hour.

Before the fall arrives, with its cascade of expensive new network sitcoms, Louie is a kind of hot, moist blessing. And most of those network sitcoms won’t be one-tenth as funny as Louie. Or Wilfred, for that matter.

Twitter: @kentucker