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Wonderfalls foreshadowed Bryan Fuller’s yearnings for Hannibal and American Gods

The cast of Wonderfalls (Photo: Fox)
The cast of Wonderfalls (Photo: Fox)

One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of short-lived TV shows. In this installment, Wonderfalls, which aired four of its 13 episodes in 2004.

There’s an offbeat comic sensibility running through the work of Bryan Fuller that begs to be psychoanalyzed. Like one of his headstrong but emotionally damaged protagonists, Fuller’s shows use humor to distract you from their fundamental pathos, delivering quirky asides or sarcastic bon mots in hopes of diverting attention from the roiling emotional need at the heart of each of them. With Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and even Hannibal (a show whose very funny moments were often overlooked, perhaps due to all the gory tableaux of blood and viscera), he created characters and worlds that often functioned by elision; nothing was straightforward if there was a more lively, twisting, and alternate route to delay an emotional beat or naked confession of feeling. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say his series embody the guarded, messy, yet ultimately big-hearted worldview of a person trying with all their might to connect with others, but who has learned over time that doing it through a stand-in work of art allows them to be emotionally honest in a way they might view as suspect in real life—hence all the work these shows’ protagonists put into evading or even shutting down possibly life-changing relationships. We’ll leave that to an actual psychoanalyst, but you get the idea.

Though it only lasted for one 13-episode season (and he co-created it with director Todd Holland) Fuller’s Wonderfalls is arguably the purest distillation of his primary mode: A story where the central character is literally forced to say and do what needs to be said and done in order to find some meaning and human connection in the world. Hannibal’s Will Graham continually retreats to his remote cabin home, able to remain apart because no one’s demanding he be otherwise. Pushing Daisies’ introverted Ned brings the object of his affection back to life, only to be forever prevented from physical contact due to the nature of his gift. And Dead Like Me’s George is stuck keeping her true identity a secret, disguised to the outside world as someone she’s not. In a way, all these characters share a similar fate: They long for something they see the universe as having cruelly denied them, and turn to wit and their own company to sustain their incomplete lives. Wonderfalls follows a similar path, but in a singularly self-contained story—one that never gets an answer, but ends with a nod to a more hopeful future.

The show is set in Niagara Falls, New York, where Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas, exuding an early charisma that shows why she’s compelling to watch even when casually chatting about Zumba lessons), a recent Brown graduate, is wasting away her days as a retail employee in the low-rent gift shop Wonderfalls. She’s in a self-imposed rut but doesn’t really care—the isolated and responsibility-free nature of her existence has been carefully cultivated. She lives in a trailer park, doesn’t aspire to much outside of doing as little work as possible, and generally avoids her family, choosing instead to share off hours with her childhood best (and seemingly only) friend Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), who waits tables at the local bar/restaurant The Barrel. This blithe existence comes crashing down when inanimate creatures—a wax lion, a toy penguin, a monkey bookend—begin giving her instructions, forcing her out of her walled-off life and into the lives of her friends, family, and strangers.

Each episode unfolds in like manner: Jaye is caught unawares by a lifeless animal that gives her a command (one only she can hear)—sometimes cryptic, occasionally direct, and almost always designed to cause maximal disruption to the insular world she’s built for herself. After a series of misadventures, her actions (which often seem haphazard or even harmful at first glance) are revealed to have assisted the lives of the random people involved in unexpected ways, and Jaye haltingly begins to experience the emotional rewards that come from vulnerability—physical and mental—with people she cares about.

Not that her family notices much, at first. The pilot, “Wax Lion,” does such an elegant job establishing this world, the stakes of Jaye’s gift, and the subtle complexities of her relationship with her family, it’s easy to overlook just how much depth Fuller manages to smuggle in—a craftily arranged story that sets up everything to come without once feeling like a prelude or labored exposition. Her mother and father (Diana Scarwid and William Sadler) are a quickly recognizable pairing of icy judgment and affable ignorance, contrasts in how they deal with their daughter’s estrangement. Brother Aaron (Lee Pace, all doofy brio and gangly physicality) doesn’t take much of an interest in her at all, until later episodes when he learns about her “talent.” The richest familial bond is with her sister Sharon (Katie Finneran), a lawyer and closeted lesbian whose alpha need to be the family keystone keeps her frustrated and agog at her relatives’ behavior.

As with both Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, the show’s most difficult balancing act is between the acerbic wit, emotional honesty, and—its toughest element to nail—Fuller’s penchant for self-consciously quirky tics that can tip over into outright goofiness. Like its Showtime-based predecessor, however, Wonderfalls avoids falling into schmaltz by dint of its cynical, apathetic heroine. Pushing Daisies’ Ned never had enough bite, which is one of the reasons that show eventually became too whimsically sugary for this writer. By contrast, Jaye (and Dead Like Me’s George) are both bluntly sarcastic reality checks, providing the necessary salt to counteract the sweetness. Dhavernas makes Jaye the opposite of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl—the Lazy Human Reality Girl, if you will. By imbuing her with a cheerful commitment to doing as little as possible, Fuller manages to have it both ways: Any larger themes of goodwill or altruism run into the blunt force of Jaye’s screw-this perspective on her unwanted commandments. Her friend Mahandra goes so far as as call her spiteful in the pilot: “Disappointing your family is an extreme sport for you.”

The opening minutes of the pilot don’t pull any punches in establishing the negotiation between Jaye’s caustic persona and the sunnily whimsical visual tone of the series. Regaling the very made-up myth of the Niagara Falls “maid of the mist,” Jaye’s irritated narration plays sarcastic counterpoint to the inventive barrage of imagery that immediately defines the slightly heightened reality of this universe: Whip-pans, smash cuts, CGI, and the Viewmaster-perspective editing tool that would become the signature cut-to-commercial tactic of the series, are all on display in the first two minutes. Plus, if there were any lingering doubts about Jaye’s general demeanor, the return to her finishing the speech in front of a bothersome kid clears them up:

Kid: “What happened to the chief?”

Jaye: “He died.”

Kid: “Why’d the princess live?”

Jaye: “’Cause she was hot—you gonna buy the tape?”

Even the theme song elegantly captures the tricky nature of a show like this, as from the opening seconds it conveys a clear sense of, “This won’t be for everyone.” Performed by XTC’s Andy Partridge, the beginning notes and lyrics are a too-cute-by-half jaunty acoustic tune, like Raffi after being ordered to crank up the childlike nature of his music. It’s off-putting and a little cloying, but then, halfway through the theme, things change. Minor-key notes start creeping in, and what seemed like a forget-your-troubles melody changes into one with a little darkness, and a healthy dose of off-kilter mystery, suggesting there’s something stranger going on than what appears at first glance.

The series also benefited from having a pilot director who was the co-creator. Todd Holland helmed five of the 13 installments, including the first two episodes, meaning the distinct and idiosyncratic vision of the creators was transferred smoothly to the screen, conveying all of the oddball look and feel that contributed to much of the appeal. Holland was a longtime producer and director of landmark TV comedy and drama, having shot everything from episodes of Twin Peaks and The Larry Sanders Show to sitcoms like Malcolm In The Middle, and influence from the latter two can be felt in his fusion of fast-paced and kinetic camerawork with the occasional beats of Sanders’ character-study comedy. Additionally, the groundwork for the sometimes reality-shirking candy-colored universe of Pushing Daisies can be witnessed in its nascent stages here, such as when Jaye’s interactions with the inanimate muses get more involved.

The romantic element of Jaye’s transformation from apathetic isolationist to cautious striver is Eric (Tyron Leitso), a nerdy but immensely likable guy who came to town on his honeymoon, only to walk in on his new wife sexually servicing the hotel’s bellhop (in later episodes, the wife returns to upend his life, and is played by Firefly’s Jewel Staite). He ghosts her, and eventually gets a job as a bartender at The Barrel, where he meet-cutes Jaye, the pair’s immediate attraction stymied by his recent heartbreak and her no-feelings policy. Over the course of the season, she slowly lets him get close, eventually giving in to his very-much-reciprocated feelings and allowing herself to become emotionally involved. Of course, like any good drama, it doesn’t last: She immediately freaks out about the potential for heartbreak (his, not hers, of course) and torpedoes the relationship. Then his spouse returns, reminding everyone that, hey, Eric’s still married.

And that awkward relationship is one of Wonderfalls’ strongest selling points—but for the very reason that it rarely feels terribly important. Aside from the few moments where their affection for one another take center stage in an episode, the will-they-won’t-they consistently takes a backseat to Jaye’s larger issues with her family and herself. Just like most attractions-turned-new relationships, it’s only one part of her life, and never feels like the defining quality of either her personality or the show. Eric can disappear for large stretches, and unlike Poochie defenders, nobody onscreen or watching at home feels the need to say, “Where’s Eric?” Their tie develops in fits and starts, growing organically, and only blossoming into a central conceit once Jaye realizes the extent of her feelings for him.

Much of the fun comes from the way Jaye begins to see her family as a source of comfort and connection, rather than a burden. It wasn’t until rewatching the series for this feature that it became clear just how much of an intense pro-family message is laid bare in most of the episodes. In the world of Wonderfalls, family is an exasperating yet absolutely necessary part of life, though it avoids the worst clichés of hokum like Party Of Five. Rather, the ideology comes through via the mission-of-the-week, where various members of Jaye’s immediate family are pulled into her orbit.

The most overt of these is the fifth episode, “Crime Dog,” which unfolds with the structure of a procedural, starting with Jaye in jail, and flashing back to show how she got there. It follows her being ordered (by a cow-shaped creamer dispenser) to cause a delay that results in the family’s longtime nanny/maid being deported back to Canada. As Jaye and her brother risk imprisonment to bring back Yvette (who turns out to be a middle-class woman named Cindy, who left her own family because they were so awful), the show emphasizes the idea that family is what we make of it—except, of course, that it took Jaye seeing how awful another family was to realize her own might not be so bad. It’s a grass-is-greener idea that is a bit perfunctory and undercooked, and comes the closest to upsetting the series’ balance of bitter and sweet.

Much more effective are the episodes written directly by Fuller and/or his fellow executive producer Tim Minear, another well-traveled and beloved cult writer who has a knack for producing excellent but short-lived shows (The Inside, Drive, Terriers, and a number of other projects he didn’t create but had a strong creative hand in, like Standoff and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse). “Barrel Bear” uses the idea of a once-famous woman exposed as a fraud to explore how the idea of “starting over” never actually means leaving the past behind so much as it entails either repressing or coming to terms with it. Plus, it features a wonderfully dark twist, again showing Fuller is at his best when he eases off the feel-good vibes (which seem to come naturally) and allows his more wicked side to come out.

And as the show rides the wave of its final episodes, those darker and more mature themes come to the fore with increasing frequency, while also more fully welding together the ongoing storylines. One episode is a sharp deconstruction of the ways people possess conflicting understandings of attraction and romance. Another investigates the high personal cost that can result from doing the right thing, especially when staying silent (or worse, telling the truth for the wrong reasons) would make life much easier. And even when the case of the week misses the mark (the second-to-last episode makes a hash of American Indian stereotypes and half-baked spirituality), Jaye’s ongoing evolution remains smartly honest: When a bird on a totem pole gives her a command and urges her on with the promise, “You’re gonna like it,” she retorts, “I think we both know that’s not true.”

Like a number of other series from the early-to-mid 2000s, Wonderfalls was a victim of the unique-show treatment from Fox, a network that seemed almost preternaturally incapable of doing right by any of the inventive and format-challenging programs it produced and then hurt with clueless meddling. As with the similarly afflicted Firefly, Fox had no idea what to do with Fuller’s charming show, so it slowly murdered it: airing episodes out of order, shuffling the timeslot without warning, and generally bungling every aspect of its rollout before canceling it after four episodes. (In many places, the first episode aired at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night.)

Luckily, Fuller, Holland, and Minear had managed to complete production on the entire first season before the plug was pulled, meaning unlike many other shows that endure a similar undignified death, they got to tell the entire self-contained story, albeit one that tantalizes what subsequent seasons would have brought. (The 2005 DVD release featured interviews and episode commentaries where plans for future storylines are briefly discussed.) Wonderfalls is indeed a wonder, a quirky and wry little show with a lot of heart that managed, ever so briefly, to make someone talking to inanimate objects look like a gift, not a mental illness. It also gave Fuller some of his best actors, ones he’s collaborated with time and again in the years since, from giving Pace the starring role on Daisies to Dhavernas’ co-starring work in Hannibal. (Attentive fans of his work will also notice they all tenuously belong to the same shared universe, long before that became the cinematic rage, which Fuller has said stems in large part from loving both the characters and people who play them, and wanting them to carry on.) While Fuller will continue to produce fascinating series, including the current American Gods, it’s hard to imagine one that so elegantly captures everything that makes his TV work unique.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder(falls.)