“Muffin Buffalo” (season one, episode six; unaired)
“Look, whatever you think has been happening hasn’t actually been happening, nor can it continue to not happen, especially while one of us—meaning you—is naked.” — Jaye Tyler, “Muffin Buffalo”
In my last review, I talked about the multitude of reasons why it was unsurprising that Wonderfalls failed to attract an audience when it first aired: an odd concept, a lack of big-name stars, blending of tones in an occasionally alienating fashion. One element that worked in its favor however, given the schizophrenic way that Fox scheduled it, was the fact that the show isn’t heavily serialized starting out. The first few episodes of the show are all unique installments in terms of tone, structure and cryptic instructions, but each episode remains united around the idea of Jaye receiving a cryptic message and the adventures she went on trying to interpret it. It’s not exactly a procedural, but each episode follows a recognizable format, and it’s entirely reasonable that “Pink Flamingoes,” “Karma Chameleon” and “Wound-Up Penguin” could have aired in any order without being too distracting.
That trend is starting to change with “Muffin Buffalo,” which is both an episode that follows directly from the events of “Crime Dog” and is also the first episode to find the common thread of Jaye’s actions. In the first few episodes the main narrative arc was watching Jaye go slowly crazy—if the act of hearing the muses doesn’t already make her that by default—and that’s been a fun arc to watch for the legion of tortured Caroline Dhavernas expressions it generates. At the same time though, their directions have also pushed her to benevolent ends, serving the public at large with far more efficacy than she ever did from behind the Wonderfalls counter. She’s given a classmate the courage to end a loveless marriage, helped a journalist break a near-terminal case of writers’ block and united a father with the daughter he never knew he had. Her actions create positive change in the world—a direction “Muffin Buffalo” shows is even more maddening to her than the voices.
And at this point, it’s become particularly maddening to her because of the regularity of her instructions. The muses have stepped down from their more ambitious goals and are giving Jaye uncomplicated short-term directions, all of which trigger positive results by way of slapstick comedy. She staples a shoelace to a store counter, a baby goes flying into her arms and a heirloom ring is uncovered. She pulls a chair out from a Barrel customer, he goes falling to the ground and avoids inadvertently ending his 20 years of sobriety. It’s a shift from the more measured pace of the earlier instructions, and helps give credence to Jaye’s increased frustrations. (And the dark side of the muses is retained: Jaye’s received her neighbor Marianne Marie Beattle’s disability checks by accident, and the buffalo on Marianne’s apron keeps warning Jaye not to give them back even as the latter gets more desperate.)
Small wonder that in order to stay relatively grounded, Jaye’s fallen back on one of her favorite activities from the pre-muse days, spying on her morbidly obese shut-in neighbor. Dubbed Fat Pat—after Fatsquatch didn’t seem appropriate—her neighbor’s consistently elusive presence and leaning trailer gives her a short-term distraction, a mystery she can’t solve as opposed to the ones that are forced on her. The investigation allows the show to introduce more tonal shifts, first with the espionage-style scenes of Jaye and Aaron failing to capture him on video (“Maybe he’s so dense he defies the laws of physics and light refraction,” Jaye unhelpfully suggests) and then when she returns to the trailer park finding it abandoned in desolate post-apocalyptic fashion. Wonderfalls always does well when it’s adding a level of suspense to the proceedings, and Jaye’s solitary venture into Fat Pat’s trailer ratchets things up to horror movie levels, paying off when she returns her own trailer to find that the tables have turned and Fat Pat’s intruding on her.
Only it turns out that Fat Pat isn’t so fat anymore, and he’s not so happy at the fact that Jaye’s filled up three binders with pictures of him. Played by Eddie Kaye Thomas (a.k.a. Finch from the American Pie movies), Pat is set up as something of a kindred spirit to Jaye, happier to stay away from the rest of the world and in a trailer where clothing is optional. The difference between the two is that his choices are motivated by poor self-esteem rather than general misanthropy, as his lost weight isn’t anywhere close to where he thinks he should be. It’s here that we see definitive proof that Jaye’s involuntary charity is rubbing off on her, as the Jaye of “Wax Lion” wouldn’t have thought twice about moving on. Now, she can tell that he’s not enjoying the isolation she feels she’d kill for, and that misery motivates her to bring him out into the world—or at least, the limited world she chooses to engage with.
And the uphill battle nature of it makes the choice all the more resonant. The people Jaye helped at the direction of the muses had problems but they were fairly decent individuals: Pat, on the other hand, is a bit of a jerk even when his past is taken into consideration. First he winds being an ungracious winner at family game night and alienating all the Tylers—except Sharon, who’s on his team and thrilled to be winning for once—and then he winds up unsettling Jaye all night when she takes him to the Barrel and he refuses to engage with anyone else except when he orders drinks from Eric. (In an amusing moment, Pat eagerly tells Eric about what he perceives as their relationship, and if you watch Tyron Leitso closely you can actually pinpoint the second his heart rips in half.) And at the end of the night, after seeming to go in for a kiss and thinking better of it, he surprises her with a naked appearance in her bed, seeing that as the only outcome of the evening.
Jaye bursts his bubble fairly quickly (“You misunderstood, I don’t let people I’m trying to impress meet my family”) and it’s here things turn ugly. There’s a definite comedy to Pat’s tirade—screaming about chubby chasing websites and fat lawsuits at a breakneck pace—but there’s also a painful quality to it, as this isn’t a mysterious plot but good intentions that seem to only be paving the erstwhile road to Hell. Jaye usually has an excuse for her behavior thanks to the muses, and here she has none, the architect of her own destruction and Pat’s designation of “evil bitch.”
Pat’s behavior feeds a trend that’s going around this week, as Aaron is also being tied up in knots by his sister’s odd behavior. I talked last week about how the show took a while to figure out how to use Lee Pace after recasting Aaron’s role, and now that the writers have done that he’s evolving into the show’s most dynamic character. The easy sibling chemistry between Pace and Dhavernas continues as he joins her in her Fat Pat surveillance, and later there’s an ugly edge added to it as he’s prodding Jaye with repeated questions about what she’s talking to lately—even gluing the cow-creamer’s head back on to goad her during game night. Aaron pushing back creates a conflict beyond the one in Jaye’s head, and it’s a healthy one to add as it keeps the action from becoming too insular.
Aaron’s pushback also gives Wonderfalls something it hasn’t had since Sharon snuck around with Beth in “Pink Flamingoes”: a subplot. Most of the episodes have been almost entirely Jaye-centric, with the rest of the cast roped directly into her muse-related investigations. Here, Aaron’s off on his own fact-finding mission, and his suspicions about his sister are motivated by more than a concern for her well-being. As he explains to Dr. Ron—a welcome return for Scotch Ellis Loring, who’s only appeared in muse voice form since the pilot—Jaye’s voices challenge his previously unshakeable atheism, the conviction that all is meaningless and therefore the fact that he himself is meaningless is fine. Other than being mistaken for demonic possession in “Wound-Up Penguin” the question of the muses’ nature has been largely abandoned in favor of Jaye’s practical instincts, and Aaron’s more cerebral attitude keeps that question in the forefront where it belongs.
It’s a good thing that Aaron’s plot is there, because unfortunately for the first time all series the muse-related resolution isn’t quite up to par. Pat’s fled to Marianne’s trailer to devour a endless supply of muffins and become Fat Pat again, and the sight is of the two moping is so pathetic that Jaye finally ignores the buffalo’s threats and returns Marianne’s disability checks to her. The subsequent disaster of Pat eating so many low-calorie muffins that it practically pops his stomach, and resolution that it inspires Marianne to rebrand her baked goods as a weight-loss diet with Pat as her spokesman, feels tenuously connected to the matter of the checks at best. Granted, that may have been the point as the whole point of the plot was that Jaye didn’t need the muses to help someone, but after the masterful payoff to earlier episodes there’s an emptiness to the plot, as empty as Pat’s insides following his muffin binge.
A weaker resolution to the muse-of-the-week doesn’t change the fact that “Muffin Buffalo” represents a positive step, both for a Jaye oddly at ease with the idea she helped someone of her own volition and for Wonderfalls at large. The show has a strong ensemble which it’s only used sparingly to date, and by both forcing Jaye into a more active role and giving the supporting characters more involved plots it’s in a better position to take advantage of those resources. Between this expansion, and the more overt statement that Jaye’s becoming a better person, Wonderfalls is in a good position heading into the second half of the series.
- Marianne Marie Beattle is another memorable inhabitant of the Fullerverse, as the character appeared in Pushing Daisies’ season two “Comfort Food” (and Beth Grant was also cast as in a similar role as meddlesome neighbor Marie in Mockingbird Lane). She was far less good-natured in her second appearance, serving both as a murder suspect and a bitter rival to Olive Snook. Yet another piece of evidence that Fuller takes pleasure in taking his Wonderfalls alums to dark places. (And she deserves an award for her delivery of “Well sieg heil, Ms. Jenny Craig!”)
- The Rube Goldberg-style methods of the muses are turned on Aaron this week, as the cow-creamer’s head breaks off to initiate a hilarious chain reaction on Dr. Ron’s desk that ends with the words “Cow Talk” clearly visible on a spilled pile of magazines.
- Jaye earns a lot of insults for her behavior, but she also earns an Employee of the Month designation for her good deeds, which she accepts only because it gives her an afternoon off. Darrin: “I guarantee you, this will make the Christmas letter!” Jaye: “I wish it wouldn’t.”
- Another disappointment: the broken axle on Pat’s trailer doesn’t turn out to go anywhere as a plot point, serving only as a sight gag anytime anyone enters.
- Best Caroline Dhavernas expression this week: The look of resigned horror on her face at the sight of Pat in her bed.
- Jaye and Aaron have the spotlight storylines, but an exchange with the third Tyler sibling reminds us there’s still an elephant in the room. Darrin: “Anything you’d like to share?” Sharon: “Uh-uh. Nope.” (On a related note, credit to Katie Finneran for eating fondue in such comical fashion.)
- Aaron: “This trailer park is void of activity! Shouldn’t people be having hoedowns or shooting beer cans or something?” Don’t be stereotypical Aaron, there’s also living in a car and growing dope to keep you occupied.
- Dating advice from Jaye: “You need to put yourself out there. Maybe over there by those drunk girls!”
- In a continuing trend from the first two episodes, Jaye’s bedside manner remains dreadful: “You lost a lot of weight. In surprising fashion!” And this might be because I’m eight, but I giggled a lot at the warning that Marianne’s fat replacement may cause “fecal urgency.”
- Eric’s misconception about Jaye and Pat is cured by the end of the evening, and the two enjoy the episode’s most sincere interaction. “I’m not nice! I’m just highly susceptible to guilt.” “You have the wrong idea about you.”
Next week: It took them six episodes, but a show set around Niagara Falls is finally talking about people going over said falls in “Barrel Bear.” I assume per the theme song there will be lots of bobbing along and tipping right over the edge.