Why Watch Wonderfalls: It’s Not Too Late

“I wonder, wonder why the wonder falls…” So goes the refrain of the theme song for FOX’s short-lived Wonderfalls. What I wonder is, why so short-lived?

Jaye Tyler was a normal, sarcastic, passive aggressive employee at a Niagara Falls tourist gift shop. Despite the job’s implied requirement of speaking to customers on a regular basis, she avoided people as best she could and was fairly successful. The lone social contact she kept with any regularity was with her best friend, Mahandra, but given Mahandra’s workplace— the bar Jaye frequented —keeping in touch didn’t take much effort. Amongst her concerned but career-minded family members (who make up a superb supporting cast including Lee Pace and Kate Finneran) she proudly played the role of the black sheep, toting around her unused philosophy degree and trailer park residence as banners of her independence. Basically, Jaye had set up a routine where she was able to fully commit to an ideal, unambitious lifestyle of few obligations and bare minimum requirements. She was as happy as an unsocial cynic can be. Until the cheeky souvenir lion started talking to her.

It doesn’t take long into the pilot for things to go wrong for Jaye. By the five minute mark she’s performing her own Heimlich remover to stop from choking on a sandwich because no one walking by will respond to her “I can’t breath” gestures.

Nor did it take long for Wonderfalls, which aired on FOX in 2004, to get the premature ax. After a total of four episodes FOX decided to cancel. They took pity on fans with a DVD set release the following year making the series’ complete thirteen episodes available for consumption, but if you weren’t a fan of the brief TV stint, chances are you weren’t becoming one now. For that to happen you’d have to know the show existed and most people still don’t.

This fate is one shared by many TV shows (FOX’s most famous victim, the fourteen episode Firefly, gains fresh mourners every day). Unfortunately following Wonderfalls Bryan Fuller, the show’s visionary creator, would continue to be plagued by such cancellations for years. The slightly more well-known Pushing Daisies only lasted two years, as did Dead Like Me. Mockingbird Lane, a reimagining of The Munsters, got a pilot during Halloween 2012 but was never mentioned again after airing once (I finally gave up on an NBC showing a repeat and found the episode online). So far his program with the longest track record, which recently got renewed for a third season, is Hannibal. I wish Mockingbird Lane had been his success story instead.

Because while every Bryan Fuller show has contained his trademarks of playful-snappy dialogue, quality visuals, and general whimsy, they have also followed a trajectory of increasingly darker subject matter. And while far be it from me to knock bleakness, being no stranger to violent, angry TV universes like those portrayed on Banshee and Luther, the balance tips too far towards overall creepiness with Hannibal. Is the show’s source material naturally inclined to creepiness? Little bit, but what was beautiful about, say, Pushing Daisies was that while the concept could be pure depressing at face value—boy finds out that he can add a minute to a dead person life’s by touching them. Touch them a second time and they die permanently. Go beyond a minute without touching them again and somebody else in the vicinity takes their place—it was balanced off with original, Technicolor sets and costumes, a star-crossed love story, and sensational weekly murder mysteries. Fuller’s early works were the perfect, imaginative mix of tragedy and fun levity. Wonderfalls encapsulates that mastery of contrasts.

So about that cheeky souvenir lion…

Turns out Jaye can talk to animals but unlike Dr. Doolittle or Eliza Thornberry her animals aren’t real. They’re artistic renderings—animal statues, store logos, t-shirt designs, the stuffed variety. As Jaye so aptly puts it, anything with “a face” abruptly takes an interest in telling her what to do. Naturally these instructions are vague and cryptic. Animated creatures aren’t necessarily known for their clear, precise orders. What Jaye comes to learn though is that to disobey or refuse these voices—wherever they’re coming from; whatever their intentions—usually ends badly. Ignoring the advice of a lawn flamingo, for example, leads Jaye to accidently hit her dad with her car.

Admittedly in their roundabout fashion the animals often lead Jaye to perform some good deed. The journey to that point of offering clear-cut aid can be hazardous, however. Certainly the finding of requests like “lick a light switch” strange is uncontested and from an outsider perspective Jaye’s odd and uncharacteristic behavior begins to draw not solely attention but alarm. Jaye is supposed to take care of Jaye, not willingly get involved in other people’s affairs in attempt to help them. The fact that exactly how her actions qualify as helpful remains as unclear to her personally as they do to everyone else doesn’t abet matters. Basically stuck with the choice between blind obedience and defiance with negative consequences, Jaye reluctantly leans towards caving against her very nature to complete demands. She is made to suffer for it though.

One unexpected fallback to this “gift” is its coinciding with the arrival of a new bartender at the bar. Sparks fly between the two. Fireworks are metaphorically shown going off in Eric’s eyes. Yet Jaye’s duty to the animal’s bidding (their not exactly known for patience, nor are they above singing “99 Bottle of Beer on the Wall” incessantly until getting their way) continually interrupts their awkward attempts at courtship. Jaye has trouble expressing feelings on a typical day and Eric, not exactly free of baggage himself, having been on the run ever since he caught his wife cheating on their wedding night, is still recovering from the surprise of that betrayal. Given that their relationship only has thirteen episodes to develop, the results are not only amusing but satisfying.

The usual kicker with cancelled shows is the unknown “what could have been.” Wonderfalls was far from exhausting its plot lines when it ended up cancelled—there were more animals to wreak havoc, more loved ones to find out Jaye’s secret, more explanation as to what exactly triggered Jaye’s hearing in the first place, and why.  And while fortunately the finale provides some semblances of closure, the show deserved a second season. Perhaps more than that though Wonderfalls continues to deserve recognition. The show deserves an end to its anonymity. Because if you’ve ever wondered why the wonder falls on you and not someone else (to paraphrase the theme song), then Jaye Tyler is a character you’ll want to get to know for thirteen episodes, and then miss when those thirteen are done.

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