Friday, January 6, 2012

Behind the Curve: Wonderfalls

You faithful readers know about my quest of watching Bryan Fuller-created shows (and trying to find something as wonderful as Pushing Daisies). I continue, and conclude (unless Mr. Fuller decides to create another new show), this process with his 2004 show Wonderfalls.

Twenty-four-year old Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is the only underachiever in a family full of successful careers – her mother Karen (Diana Scarwid) is a well-known author, her father Darrin (William Sadler) is a respected doctor, her sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) is a lawyer, and her brother Aaron (Lee Pace) is a Ph.D. candidate. Jaye is quite comfortable living a stress-free life as an employee in a gift shop at Niagara Falls called “Wonderfalls” where the teenage employee she trained is able to rise above her and become her manager. That is, Jaye is quite content with her life that way it is until she has her first “sode” (short for episode) and begins hearing inanimate objects (“anything with a face”) talking to her. When she does what they tell her to do, eventually something good comes out of it, although sometimes things look far worse before they look better. When she doesn’t do what they tell her to do, the consequences are dire. That, and they repeat their invectives incessantly until she does what they tell her to do. So despite thinking she’s crazy and her family also being concerned (without specifically knowing why), Jaye starts doing what the tchotchkes tell her to do. But it doesn’t help that they are often vague with their instructions, leaving Jaye at odds trying to figure out what she’s meant to do.

Rounding out the cast are Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), a cocktail waitress who has been Jaye’s best friend since at least high school, and Eric (Tyron Leitso), the bartender at Jaye’s favorite watering hole, who landed there after his honeymoon in Niagara Falls ended with his wife’s sexual indiscretion. Now Eric has got a twinkle in his eye for Jaye, and the feeling may be reciprocal…

Like with Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls is a difficult series to pin down in one category. It is part bizarre comedy, part romance, and part family drama (though still with a darkly comic twist). What it is not is Pushing Daisies (even with Lee Pace in the cast) as it doesn’t *quite* have all the charm and appeal, but I still liked this series a lot more than I liked Dead Like Me. That being said though, I actually see a lot of similarities between Jaye and George - their mannerisms, their speech patterns (not just what they say but also how they say it), the whole “disaffected youth” thing with slacker jobs because they can’t be motivated to do more, the way they don’t like to get involved in anything “extracurricular” (volunteering, etc.) or to get too close to many people. Also, Jaye’s adventures and misadventures helping people through the directions of the inanimate objects feel a little like George’s adventures and misadventures helping people through the names that show up on her post-it notes. Sometimes there are even somewhat similar scenes in terms of the cinematography (the way camera speeds up for instance) although in that respect, this show definitely has its own feel as well (with, for instance, the boxed scenes floating by each other or the viewfinder click ending each scene). As a side note, I was really fond of the viewfinder idea and how that’s a theme throughout (on the way scenes cut and end as I just mentioned, but also in the opening sequence and on the packaging of the DVDs.)

On the down side, besides Mahandra who feels like the token African-American character and the occasional appearance of some American Indians, there’s little racial diversity in the characters. However, Sharon is in the process of coming out as a lesbian so at least there’s some divergence in the cast from Caucasian heteronormative people only. By the way, look out for a guest appearance in a few episodes from Kari Matchett (who now plays Joan on Covert Affairs) as Sharon’s girlfriend.
Another down side was that the second to last episode (“Totem Mole”) is a bit more over the edge than others in terms of oddness with the suggestion that spirits are what make the inanimate objects talk to Jaye and, even more so, with Jaye having conversations with dead people. It just feels a little weaker than the other episodes. In fact, I found more general entertainment in the episodes that don’t ask you to question where the voices come from or why they talk to Jaye (beyond “because you listen”) but you just accept that this is Jaye’s life now and sit back for the ride.

A minor pet peeve is that I’m not the hugest fan of when a show introduces characters that feel like they should be fixtures in the main character’s life but we only see them in that one relevant episode. For instance, the Tyler’s beloved housekeeper who “practically raised” the three children is a key figure in one episode and then we never ever see her again. It’s not just that she doesn’t have lines again, she’s never even seen in the background silently cleaning up or anything like that, which seems like a fairly easy thing to write into any episode. Likewise, Jaye’s neighbors “Fat Pat” and Marianne Marie Beetle feature prominently in one episode and then we never hear from them again. Well, actually we do hear from Marianne Marie Beetle again, just not in Wonderfalls - she next shows up in an episode of Pushing Daisies. Of course, that being said, some people did reappear after some time (i.e., Wade Jones the security guard, Thomas from EPS, etc.) so there’s potential we might have seen these people again had the show been able to live on longer than it did.

Speaking of Wonderfalls’ short shelf life, I presume that the show’s creators and writers realized at some point early on that there was going to be just the one season and that’s why some loose ends remain as they would have been revisited in later seasons. But they did a good job of wrapping things up neatly enough to have a satisfying ending.


  1. In reference to things being tied up, all of the episodes were produced before the show even aired (which is how they were able to have all of them on DVD-only four episodes actually aired on TV). It was a mid-season show, so I'm guessing they designed it to have sort of a season finale feel at the very least and left some things open in the hope that it would go on to season 2.

    1. Interesting. It felt kind of like they had one plan and then veered off to this other ending when they realized the show wasn't going to make it to a second season, so I'm surprised to hear that.