TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 17 — ‘Wonderfalls’

12.15.09 8 years ago 19 Comments


In your high school english class, it referred to a figurative device wherein the part represents the whole. The easy example that is stuck in my head is the one in which “50 sail” is meant to refer to “50 ships.”
For the purposes of this list, “synecdoche” is the word I’m using to justify the only cheat on my tabulation of TV’s Best of the Decade. I’m not doing any ties in my Top 31, but I do have one synecdoche. 
That synecdoche is the one that places “Wonderfalls” at No. 17.
[Confused? Curious? Click through and all things will be clear…]
To understand how “Wonderfalls” came to not only be on my list, but also to be this high, one need know that it’s the part representing two powerful wholes:
1) “Wonderfalls” is the token representative of Bryan Fuller’s trilogy of quickly cancelled shows in which female protagonists with guys’ names — Jaye, Chuck, George — fight crimes or solve spiritual wrongs with the help of supernatural forces. That’s a group that also features “Pushing Daisies” and “Dead Like Me,” all favorites from the decade. 
2) “Wonderfalls” is also the token representative from a generation of fantastic FOX shows that network couldn’t figure out how to schedule, market or promote and yet live on in well-appointed DVD sets, usually including episodes that never aired on the network. This is a group that includes “Kitchen Confidential” and “Greg the Bunny.” It could be stretched to include “Action,” which aired a single random episode in the Aughts. It could also be expanded for the purposes of the shamefully underrated “Method & Red,” which somehow hasn’t been released on DVD. Yes, “Firefly” could theoretically fit into this group, as could a slew of other prematurely truncated shows. “Life on a Stick”? “The Loop”? Really, the more I list, the more it’s clear that the synecdochical representative of this group could be far higher, but I didn’t want to cheat any more than necessary.
In any case, I looked at that long list of shows and, quite simply, I said to myself, “Self, which one of these was your favorite?”
I didn’t hesitate. 
The pilot for “Wonderfalls,” written by Fuller and directed by Todd Holland, is probably in the Top 5 of pure, stand-alone pilots that I’ve seen since I started this gig. I put it alongside things like “Lost,” “Friday Night Lights” and “The Nine” (proof that a great pilot needn’t necessarily evolve into a great series).
FOX took that pilot, pushed it back, recast at least one main role (Lee Pace taking over for Adam Scott, essentially a wash), dumped it, changed its time period without telling anybody, mixed up the episode order despite a heavy serialized element and ultimately pulled the show after only four airings. That gives “Wonderfalls” a comfortable advantage in the “Fewest aired episodes of any show on this list” race. Fortunately, “Wonderfalls” was released on DVD in a compact set that includes all 13 episodes, from the masterful pilot to what was retrofitted from a season finale into a relatively satisfying series finale. If you just pretend to believe that “Wonderfalls” was always designed to fit into the British series model or maybe a cable model and that nobody involved ever thought of it airing more than 13 times, it holds its own. After all, “Pushing Daisies” only aired 22 episodes and “Dead Like Me” only made 29. “According to Jim” aired 180 episodes in the decade, so longevity and bulk output really aren’t part of my equation here.
If you somehow missed it or forgot about it, “Wonderfalls” starred Caroline Dhavernas as Jay, a Brown philosophy major putting her Ivy League degree to good use working at a Niagara Falls gift shop, lacking the people skills to even become an assistant manager. She lives in a trailer park and she’s constantly disappointing her Type-A parents (William Sadler and Diana Scarwid) and siblings (Pace and Katie Finneran). She has distain for everyone around her and approaches the world with perpetual ironic detachment until two things happen: First, she meets a dreamy bartender (Tyron Leitso), still smarting from the recent betrayal of his bride. Then animal figures start talking to each other, including a wax lion, a mounted fish, the eagle on the back of a quarter and the Hear-no-Evil/Speak-no-Evil/See-no-Evil monkeys (Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru). The animals give Jaye cryptic advice leading her to become the strangest of Good Samaritans. 
Is Jaye crazy? Are the animals a manifestation of divine intervention? Are the talking animals agents of Satan? Or do they relate to Native American mythology and are they her spirit guides and is Jaye some sort of slacker oracle? 
“Wonderfalls” came out of the same development season as “Joan of Arcadia” and put a very FOX spin on what was essentially a derivative of the same premise. Before the bum economy had made “failure to launch” and “boomerang” kids nearly a societal norm, Jaye was “overeducated and unemployable” and played with a remarkable so-dry-she-must-be-Canadian sense of snark and derision by Dhavernas. As another character explained in an early episode, Jaye had created a life in which nobody expected anything from her, which made it all the funnier when pigs, cows, a pink flamingo and eventually people started reaching out to her.
The show allowed Jaye to keep her voice even as this new string of altruism changed the character in dramatic ways over the course of the shortened season. Initially disconnected from everyone around her except for her best bud Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), Jaye became closer and closer to her quirky family — Sadler, Scarwid, Finneran and particularly Pace were all excellent — and became a better person. Slightly. 
For me, “Wonderfalls” operates as a perfect tonal middle ground between “Dead Like Me” and “Pushing Daisies.” With its family dynamic and budding romance, it had more levity and heart than “Dead Like Me,” but because of Jaye’s withering demeanor, it never reached quite the level of tweeness that sometimes bogged down the lesser episodes of “Pushing Daisies.” [Not surprisingly, “Pushing Daisies” proved to be the most accessible of the trio, though it still pulled in an insufficient number of viewers to sustain its network home (and don’t give me the historical revisionism about the strike killing “Pushing Daisies”). And this is a personal preference thing. If you’re gonna tell me you loved “Pushing Daisies,” it’s not like I’m going to hold it against you. As as for “Dead Like Me,” I loved the Bryan Fuller beginning, lost patience for a while and then regained interest when Laura Harris showed up.]
It’s always made me a little sad that either nobody offered Dhavernas another TV comedy or she simply decided she’d rather work in movies, mostly in Canada. Seeing her in small roles in “These Girls,” “Hollywoodland” and “Breach” hasn’t had the same effect, as if the writing on “Wonderfalls” gave her near-monotone its perfect degree of undercurrent.
With Fuller and Tim Minear — another Crown Prince of the cancelled-too-soon genre — on board, you knew that “Wonderfalls” would have a love of language and its own unique voice. And with Holland, “Wonderfalls” had a unique visual style as well, characterized by distorted perspectives and solid special effects. And with its good-deed-of-the-week format, the guest cast included such familiar faces as Karie Matchett, Sarah Drew, Louise Fletcher, Rue McClanahan, Beth Grant (in a role she’d reprise on “Pushing Daisies”), Jewel Staite, Spencer Breslin and Glenn Fitzgerald.
Oh and good gracious how I loved the obnoxiously catchy theme song by Andy Partridge.
So anyway, that’s how I came to place “Wonderfalls” at No. 17 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade. Since most people skipped the show when it barely aired, I’d strongly recommend that fans of other Fuller shows Netflix it and give it a try.
[As a sidebar, I also recommend all of the other shows in that second synecdoche group. “Kitchen Confidential” is available on Hulu and it’s an amusingly star-studded piece that features great work from Bradley Cooper, Owen Yeoman, John Cho, John Francis Daley and Erinn Hayes. “Keen Eddie” isn’t available on Hulu, but it’s a good case if you ever wonder why people think Mark Valley is a TV star or why some of us still hold out hope for Sienna Miller. And “Greg the Bunny”? Also no available on Hulu, but endlessly quotable and I remain a bit confused why it couldn’t find any sort of audience at all.]
Coming up tomorrow? No matter the path you choose, it all ends up the same place.

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