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A Casual TV Fan's Guide

Wonderfalls: The Complete Viewer Collection, part one
Rated: TV-PG :: Air dates: 2004

By Dan Toland
02 October 2008 — All right, before you do anything else, go to my Tick review and read the opening rant. It applies here. Stupid cancel-happy Fox. Oh, but American Dad manages to be on its fourth freaking season. Justice is a lie. Anyone who tells you differently is not your friend.

Wonderfalls: The Complete Viewer Collection
Episodes / DVDs: 13 episodes on three DVDs
Starring: Caroline Dhavernas as Jaye Tyler, Tyron Leitso as Eric Gotts, Tracie Thoms as Mahandra McGinty, Katie Finneran as Sharon Tyler, Lee Pace as Aaron Tyler
Featuring: William Sadler as Darrin Tyler, Diana Scarwid as Karen Tyler, Neil Grayston as Alec, Jewel Staite as Heidi Gotts

Okay, try to imagine a show about a bitterly sarcastic young woman who hears voices telling her to do things that improve peoples' lives despite her wishes to keep her head down and not get involved. Are you thinking of Joan of Arcadia? Then you're one of the reasons Wonderfalls only aired four episodes. These two shows with remarkably similar concepts managed to premiere in the same season, airing on the same night, in the same timeslot. One of these shows was on Fox, so we always knew who was going to win. And that's a shame, because this was an unusual show with a lot going for it. Created by Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies) and Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle) and produced by Tim Minear (Firefly, Angel, Drive), it certainly had the creative team behind it. The scripts are topnotch, the cast is damn near flawless and it had talking animals. Talking animals!

Wonderfalls is the story of Jaye Tyler (Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas, or, as I've taken to referring to her, my TV girlfriend), an overeducated slacker with a useless philosophy degree. She's the black sheep of her wildly accomplished family, who drifts through life employed at a Niagara Falls souvenir shop, unaware of how surrounded she is by animal-shaped tchotchkes until they start talking to her. And they refuse to cease talking to her until she follows the incredibly vague instructions they foist upon her. While all this appears to be a mental illness at first, it soon becomes apparent that something is speaking to Jaye. And although she has to be dragged kicking and screaming the entire way, the directions she's given do manage to help a lot of people — including herself.

Jaye is actually a fairly obnoxious character, and the writers don't let her off the hook. She's wrapped herself in this "slacker outsider" persona like a warm blanket because it's easier than trying to improve herself. She rails against her surgeon father and best-selling author mother, both of whom clearly love and support their daughter. She sleepwalks her way through a minimum-wage job she's obviously too smart for, and is passed over for a promotion by a teenager affectionately known as "The Mouth Breather" (played by an unrecognizable Neil Grayston, Eureka's Douglas Fargo). And while she's very funny to the viewer, you can see she'd be difficult to actually be around for any length of time. This show frequently felt like it had been kicking around in the creators' minds for years, and Jaye regularly feels like one of the whiny, sarcastic protagonists of any mid-90s Gen X sitcom. In this case, however, the writers knew it, and rubbed Jaye's nose in it often enough to teach her a lesson about getting over herself. Her relationship with her family is getting repaired, she's opening up to a relationship with Eric and Jaye is learning self-confidence. It's a wickedly cutting comedy with fantastical elements, extremely quotable dialog, a theme song (courtesy of XTC's Andy Partridge) that will stay in your head for days and the guy who played Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.

Despite only four episodes making it to air, this set holds the entire 13-episode series, which, although obviously leaving things open to continue, ties things up to a great extent, as the creators knew that they would have a hard time guaranteeing anything past the initial run. (Incidentally, creator Bryan Fuller announced at the San Diego Comic-Con that a guest character from Wonderfalls will be making an appearance this year on his new show, Pushing Daisies. He also said there's a possibility that Jaye herself might make an appearance.)

But that's for later.

Disc One
Wax Lion
Story: Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller
Writer: Bryan Fuller

The Plot: A wax lion (whose face is all smooshed) and a brass monkey (with a German accent) harass Jaye until she helps an obnoxious customer find her stolen purse, her sister come out of the closet and a deliveryman find love. Along the way she steals the monkey and meets up with Eric.

Good Stuff: Jaye's dad, trying to help: "When's the last time you had an orgasm? There's nothing to be ashamed of. Millions of people have orgasms every day."

The animation of the monkey is great. It doesn't just sit there and talk; you can see it moving around in the background, shifting its weight and waving its hands around.

The way the lion convinces Jaye to set two people up is one of the greatest things to happen in the history of television. And as you know, I'm not prone to hyperbole. (What? Oh.)

Two words: Emergency tracheotomy.

"Life can be sort of peaceful when you stop struggling."
"It's a lot like drowning that way."

Not So Good Stuff: Dhavernas' accent is normally flawless (she's Québécoise), but it gets a little wonky at times here.

Random Observations: The animals are a lot more talkative than they will generally be from now on, and there's a lot more Niagara Falls pop culture here. Aaron is portrayed as a giant tool, but later he'd become a much more likable character.

Overall: It's a pilot, with all of the pitfalls inherent in a pilot: lots of expository dialog, actors unsure of their characters, groundwork is laid for storytelling that never gets referred to again. However, on the whole, it's successful. The animals, particularly the wax lion, have tremendous personality. And Dhavernas, while somewhat more caustic here than she would later become, always bears watching: 7.5 out of 10.

Pink Flamingos
Writers: Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts

The Plot: Due to fairly egregious dumbassery on Jaye's part, her dad winds up in the hospital. Meanwhile, she begrudgingly assists her high school rival organize their 10 year class reunion — four years early.

Good Stuff: William Sadler gives a great performance as Darrin, Jaye's father. He puts out a superhuman effort not to patronize or talk down to his daughter who's clearly not living up to her potential, and he's successful maybe 90% of the time. It's a nuanced way of playing what could be a rote character.

Chelan Simmons (Kyle XY) gives a very good performance as a tremendously irritating character. You know Gretchen: she was the senior class president, she led her clique, she talks way too fast, high school was the best time of her life and she never really got over it ending. And she manages to use her marriage-related conversion to Judaism primarily as a means to promote herself, although she considers herself "sort of a Christmas-and-Easter Jew."

Jaye, helpless to the whims of whatever it is that's talking to her through these animals, is referred to as "the universe's butt-puppet."

Jaye's mom is far more popular with Jaye's class than Jaye herself, going so far as to win a superlative award: Best Fashion Sense.

Not So Good Stuff: I realize there's not a lot to work with, but the plastic lawn flamingo telling Jaye to "get off [her] ass" is nowhere near as impressive as the lion. It basically moves its mouth and sits there like it's made of plastic or something.

Random Observations: Fox aired the first four episodes out of order; this was the last one aired.

The Dandy Warhols' "We Used to Be Friends" is heard during preparations for the reunion, and then again during the reunion itself, several months before it would be used as the theme song for Veronica Mars.

Overall: There are two great subplots here, but the really annoying main plot overshadows them. Gretchen is so infuriating that it makes it impossible to feel any empathy for her. We're meant to feel bad about her difficult home life and the fact that the universe is telling Jaye to "destroy her" (in an awesome mad scientist / supervillain voice), but the fact is she brings all of her crap on herself by being so whiny, manipulative and vapid. And her voice makes me want to poke out my eardrums with a meat thermometer. The only thing this plot does is call Jaye out for her selfishness — which hasn't really been on display all that much here. The only reason this scores a 5 out of 10 is because Bill Sadler freaking rocks.

Karma Chameleon
Writer: Tim Minear

The Plot: While Jaye frets about the lack of success life has handed her thus far, she befriends Bianca, a reporter with an uncontrollable stutter, following her for a story on disaffected twentysomethings. This is cool and all, until she gets kinda creepy and stalkerish about it.

Good Stuff: Bianca's nametag reads "Binky."

Jaye: You're like that girl in that movie who wanted to be that other girl so much that she killed for it!
Bianca: Grease?
Jaye: No! Single White Female!
Bianca: "No! I'm st-st..."
Jaye: "Stalking me?"
Bianca: "St-st..."
Jaye: "Stabbing me?"
Bianca: "St-st..."
Jaye: "Stealing my organs after you stab me?"
Bianca: "St-st..."
Jaye: "Stitching a skin suit out of my dead corpse after you stab me and steal my organs?"

Not So Good Stuff: More than any other, this episode really feels like the script had been carried around for at least a decade. The crux of Bianca's article is the (supposedly) brand new phenomenon of people who feel an ironic detachment to the world around them and are lazy, unmotivated and sarcastic, and how this has just begun happening as Generation Y kids leave college and enter the workforce. Bear in mind, this was 2004. I remember seeing this same story around 1994, but referring to Generation X. Oh, there are going to be lazy, entitled kids in every generation, but this was a media phenomenon you couldn't get away from in the early 90s, and the story had pretty much played out by the end of the decade. And before you ask, yes, I spent most of 1994 drinking coffee, playing guitar, wearing flannel and putting as little effort into my shitty job as possible. I live to embody stereotypes.

Bianca's stutter makes it difficult to get her name out when she meets Jaye, and when she says, "I'm B-B-B," Jaye immediately guesses "Bianca" on her first try. Wha?

Random Observations: I noticed it before, but this episode drives home that the Tyler family are Darrin, Karen, Sharon, Aaron... and Jaye.

Episode writer and show producer Minear plays the voice of the chameleon harassing Jaye to "get her words out."

Overall: This is a very well-written and hilariously funny episode built on an obsolete and unworkable premise. I couldn't get around the fact that I had seen this storyline beaten into the ground 10 years earlier, but the cast has a fine time with a very good script: 7.5 out of 10.

Wound-Up Penguin
Writer: Liz W. Garcia

The Plot: Jaye meets a nun who's lost her faith, and after telling her about the whole talking animals thing, gets to be on the receiving end of an exorcism.

Good Stuff: The very first shot of the episode is the wax lion, the brass monkey and the karma chameleon driving Jaye out of her mind by loudly singing "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" while she tries to sleep.

This is the first episode that let Eric do more than be the cute guy behind the bar. Although Tyron Leitso (House of the Dead) is pretty wooden, he and Dhavernas have remarkable chemistry, and it's good to see him actually participating in the story.

Lee Pace also begins to become a more prominent character here. He, too, works well with Dhavernas.

The music in this episode is outstanding. Both the song choices and the way they're used are very effective.

Not So Good Stuff: Honestly, folks, as a rule, Catholics aren't this insane.

Random Observations: For the first time we get a sense of how unremittingly bleak and tacky the Niagara Falls area really is.

Overall: This was better than I remembered. It's not as witty or clever as most of the episodes, but the story has more meat to it than usual and more of the supporting cast is being let in on things. It has fewer antics than usual, but a break from the norm is not the worst thing in the world: 8 out of 10.

Disc one, which contains all the episodes that actually made it to air, isn't bad. The only real misfire is "Pink Flamingos" and its reliance on television's most staggeringly abrasive guest star.

Disc Two
Crime Dog
Writer: Krista Vernoff

The Plot: An arrested Jaye goes over the story of how she and Aaron tried to smuggle their family's housekeeper into the United States. (From Canada.)

Good Stuff: Jaye's façade crumbles at the prospect of actually being in trouble. The detective has her in tears mere seconds into her interrogation.

Aaron actually notices Jaye talking to a creamer in the shape of a cow and calls her on it. Which is odd, because she does this all the time, and no one has ever noticed before. It leads Aaron to take an interest in what's happening with Jaye, and he deduces that she hears these things speaking to her, and that they seem to be telling her stuff that helps her out. He's not sure what to do with that yet, but it goes to show that he's not stupid.

This seems as good a place as any to praise Katie Finneran (Night of the Living Dead) for her work as Sharon. More than anyone else on the series, she and Dhavernas have remarkable chemistry and nail their relationship as siblings who don't particularly like each other perfectly. Sharon is totally insecure and almost, but not quite, able to bluff her way through it, and she's great to watch.

Not So Good Stuff: They set this episode up like Jaye and Aaron have a long-standing special relationship, and that Jaye was closer to her brother than with anyone else in the family. Which basically comes out of nowhere; in all of Aaron's previous appearances, he generally treated Jaye like crap.

Bringing a Canadian housekeeper into the country seems like it would not merit quite the police response seen here: at least eight police cars and a helicopter await Jaye and Aaron as they get into Niagara.

Yvette the housekeeper is such an important and revered member of the family that she's never seen or referred to again.

Random Observations: Jaye actually has a short back and forth conversation with this week's animal (the crime dog of the title, who is awesome). Usually they ignore her when she answers back.

Promos for this episode ran on Fox, but the series was cancelled before the episode could air.

There are an awful lot of poop references on this show, which the creators freely admit to on the commentary. Because, as Lost and Heroes' Bryan Fuller says, "Poop is always funny."

I never noticed it until everyone was standing together at the end of the show, but Lee Pace is freakishly tall.

Overall: This is fun. More than anything else, it's really good to see the three Tyler siblings at the forefront, because they generally tend to be the best thing going on this show. Great script and neat use of noir structure: 8.5 out of 10.

Muffin Buffalo
Writers: Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts

The Plot: On orders of the wax lion, Jaye steals someone's disability checks. All on her own, she tries to help a shut-in leave his trailer, despite being angry that everyone thinks she helps people. (Which she does.)

Good Stuff: Jaye is furious that the universe keeps throwing situations at her in which she saves a baby and stops an alcoholic from ruining his sobriety, to the point that she yells at a roomful of people clapping for her.

Sharon is great in this one. She's gleeful at the prospect of Jaye and Aaron not getting along. And her competitive streak is awakened on game night.

Aaron is becoming obsessed with Jaye's conversations with these inanimate objects. He thinks she's insane, until the universe lets him know there might be something to all this. Nothing actually talks to him, but it's enough to send him into an existential crisis. Y'see, he was much happier being a theologian who believed there was nothing behind anything.

Not So Good Stuff: Eddie Kaye Thomas (American Pie, 'Til Death) continues to show me why he needs to be kicked in the face whenever I see him act in anything. And when I say "act," I mean mumble his lines as he sleepwalks around a set and slouches into a chair until he appears to be asleep.

Random Observations: Marianne Marie Beattle, the woman whose checks Jaye has, is the character scheduled to appear on Fuller's Pushing Daisies.

This episode pushes the God angle a little more heavily than usual.

Overall: Well, it certainly has its good points, and plenty of them, but it feels kind of unnecessary. We're never really told why the animals want Jaye to steal the old lady's disability checks so she can get evicted from the trailer park. However, it's showing significant character growth for Jaye, even if she's fighting it: 7.5 out of 10.

We're gonna leave it here for this week. Like Eureka, this is a set that has its episodes spread awkwardly across three discs. So, come back in seven days when we'll finish this up and answer all your questions. Well, probably not. But Kaylee's gonna be in it, and that fixes a lot. Incidentally, I met Kaylee at Dragon Con a few years ago, and I swear, she's the tiniest person I ever met. Seriously. That doesn't have anything to do with anything here, mind. Just felt like saying. So, yeah. More Wonderfalls next week.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : :

Part One: discs one through two
Part Two: discs two (continued) through three

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