Wonderfalls [retro feature]

“I don’t have a choice. I’m a puppet. The universe just sticks its hand up my butt, and if I don’t dance, people get hurt.”

Perhaps no quote better described Wonderfalls, a critically acclaimed series that debuted on Fox in 2004 and, like so many promising shows before and since, was consigned to an early grave. (Why, Greg the Bunny, why?) Helmed by executive producer Tim Minear, Falls told the story of Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas), an underachieving Gen Y-er (redundant) putting her philosophy degree to good use as a retail clerk at Niagara Falls. Sardonic, more than a little jaded, and content to coast through life, Jaye is understandably unnerved when a wax lion suddenly begins speaking to her… despite, as she quite reasonably points out, not having a larynx. Before long the lion is joined by other inanimate objects, and our heroine quickly learns that when she doesn’t follow their advice, bad things happen. On the other hand, when she plays ball things somehow seem to work themselves out. But is it God at work? The devil? Or just an overactive pituitary gland?

If that all sounds vaguely familiar, it should: the premise is sort of Joan of Arcadia by way of My Name is Earl, if that makes any sense. (If not, well, I tried.) Further complicating Jaye’s life are her supremely successful parents, secretly sapphic sister, and a stubbornly secular brother who soon gloms on that not all is well and tries to intervene. (All, by the way, played by excellent actors, particularly Katie Finneran as sister Sharon.) But it’s the new bartender at Jaye’s favorite watering hole who may present the greatest challenge: after catching his wife cheating on their honeymoon, Eric (Tyron Leitso) is, for wont of anything better to do, just hanging around while figuring out what to do next. Emotionally vulnerable, witty, and able to see past Jaye’s scathing exterior to her softer side (yes, it exists), Eric seems like the perfect guy. So why, pray tell, does everything the animals say seem designed to keep them apart?

Like many Fox shows, Wonderfalls didn’t last long… only 4 of 13 episodes ever aired, and in pretty random time slots. That’s a shame, because beyond simply the offbeat premise, Falls had genuine talent at the helm and, if given half a chance, might have found success. Not that it was perfect – half of the episodes that aired were uneven, a few funny lines mixed in with some truly painful moments. In one, stuttering runaway Bianca tries to steal Jaye’s identity in classic Single White Female fashion… not a bad plot, but undermined by the fact that Jaye goes from liking to disliking Bianca and back again about 5 times. Plus it’s Jaye’s bitchiest episode of all, begging the question of why anyone would even want to steal her persona.

That may have been the show’s biggest hurdle, one that turned me and many viewers off when it first aired. In many ways Jaye is my kind of girl, a hard-drinking, acid-tongued spitfire with zero tolerance for stupid people. Hot! But there’s a fine line between witty jibes and flat-out cruelty, and it’s a line Jaye crosses more than once in early episodes. For anyone who watched and was turned off by her shrewish nature, take heart: she does soften up over the course of the season. Makes me wonder if the writers had trouble nailing down Jaye’s personality early on, since she vacillates between endearingly sarcastic and full-on bitch goddess so often. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – the episodes that never aired display greater consistency, keeping the show’s many strengths but toning down Jaye’s mood swings and withering putdowns in favor of more balance. As a result, she’s a much more likable character by the final episodes…

…just in time for the series to end. The real shame of Wonderfalls is that, between the absence of promotion and the fluctuating time slot, its fate was sealed almost from the start. As a result, a show that had quirkiness, engaging characters, and clever dialogue to spare is now forever limited to one season. Still, it’s an entertaining season at that, and while the finale does leave the door open for more, it provides a satisfying ending that I doubt many people will be disappointed with. (*coughSopranoscough*) What may disappoint is listening to the DVD commentaries and learning what the writers had in store for next season: among other things, Jaye would encounter an intact wax lion who encourages her to ignore the advice of the original smooshed-face lion. Also, her shrink was going to start recording their sessions and publish a book, leading to season three opening with Jaye confined to a mental institution. (Fanfic writers, you have your assignments.)

One final card in case you’re still not convinced: Joss Whedon fans will appreciate the presence of Jewel Staite, fresh off the cancellation of Firefly, as Eric’s estranged wife Heidi in the second half of the season. (Good thing she hitched her star to a winner this time, huh?) I have to give it up for both actors, as Eric and Heidi’s first scene together is truly fraught with tension. I know that sounds cliched as hell and I’m sorry; but honestly, the level of raw emotion swirling around in that scene is outstanding… Eric’s anger is so tangible you’re literally not sure if he’s going to get violent. It marks a turning point where the show shifts from being an eccentric mostly-comedy to (while still funny) an examination of just how damaged goods some of the characters are, and attempting to resolve their issues. I’m probably waxing way too philosophic about a long-cancelled TV series, but so be it: the actors really step up their games in response to the new dynamic, and it shows. (Plus the insult “Heidi ho” is just funny. Admit it.)

In the final analysis, Wonderfalls did have its flaws. The lead character grew and matured but was pretty unlikable at times, and the early episodes were a little uneven. But there’s no denying it was a cool show with good music and actors who had real chemistry together, and it deserved a better chance than it got. If you can find the DVD somewhere for a decent price, you’d be well advised to give the Falls a shot. From the wax lion’s nonexistent larynx to your ears.

Fun Fact: The Tyler family consists of Darrin, Karen, Aaron, Sharon, and Jaye. Which of these things is not like the others?


And now, quotes…

Karen: She’s not disturbed, she’s depressed, and they have pills for that now. Can’t you prescribe something?
Darrin: You don’t just start popping pills because you feel a little down. I mean, there are other ways to deal with depression. Sweetheart? When’s the last time you had an orgasm?
Sharon: …that sound you hear is stunned silence.
Darrin: There’s nothing to be ashamed of, millions of people have orgasms every day.
Jaye: Not ashamed, mortified!

Jaye: Your ass is ringing.
Eric: My ass rings a lot.
Jaye: You ever think about setting it on vibrate?
Eric: I’m… not sure I’m secure enough with my manhood to do that.
Jaye: So, why do you have an ass if you don’t answer it?

Gretchen: I’m sort of a Christmas and Easter Jew.

Jaye: What if we’re too late? What if he’s already beat her to death with a bag of oranges for withholding trick money?
Eric: Well if she had any trick money, I don’t think she’d be living in a barrel. I know I wouldn’t be.
Jaye: Yes, but maybe she’s just a lazy whore. That happens, right? They can’t all have hearts of gold and good work ethics.

Aaron: Well, some folks believe that early man’s gut instinct was God telling our ancestors to fight, flee or fu- …uuun-have.

Karen: Sharon, go talk to your father, you’re his favorite.
Aaron: I thought I was his favorite.
Karen: We don’t have favorites.

Jaye: How does going over Niagara Falls in a barrel make anyone famous?
Mahandra: Because it’s Niagara Falls?! Where is your hometown pride? You really are like a hobbit that hates the Shire.

Jaye: What are you, like five?
Peter: Sixteen! …fifteen. Fourteen. On my next birthday.

Mahandra: Oh, my God, Jaye. You cannot do this to him. You promised!
Jaye: I know, I’m trying to save him… by avoiding him, so I could be with him. But I can’t go near him, or I’ll destroy him. So if I could just manage to stay away from him, then maybe we could be together. Please don’t repeat that back to me.

Jaye: Fine, I’m the crazy one. But I had the snake!
Heidi: Well it’s my snake, and I want it back! …the snake. That’s a penis reference, right?
Jaye: No! God! With a mind that works like that, no wonder you cheated on your honeymoon!

Security guard: Is this one of those stores that gives its employees a cash bonus when they apprehend a shoplifter?
Jaye: 10% of whatever they were gonna steal. One time I “accidentally” left the watch case open, and I got like 500 bucks!

Jaye: I make good life choices — mostly because they’re forced on me, but I make them — and I find myself in unpleasant situations all the time. You know why? Because even if you have a choice, it can and will be taken away from you. We’re all fate’s bitch. You might as well go ahead and bend over for destiny now.

2 comments

  1. That was the basis of Fox’s programming for several years in there. Start a show, air it out of order on different nights each week, then cancel it. How many terrific 1 season shows did they can just because they had no concept of how to market them?

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