Fox // 2004 // 570 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // August 24th, 2005
"Why struggle with fate? Life can be sort of peaceful when you stop struggling." -- Eric Gotts (Tyron Leitso), to Jaye on the state of their relationship
In what will probably go down as one of the quickest abortions in television history, Wonderfalls was a child prodigy cut down just as it was discovering its power. Thankfully, Fox Home Entertainment had the wherewithal to listen to the fans at SaveWonderfalls.com and package all 13 episodes (only four were aired) in this great collection, enabling the series to live on for generations to come.
Amid the gaudy glitz and over-commercialization of what was once the pristine beauty of Niagara Falls lives Jaye Tyler, yet another in the growing ranks of America's disenfranchised youth. She possesses all of the tools necessary to be, do, and have whatever she wants in life, but has zero interest in playing the game...until the universe slaps her upside the head. With one stranger's wish made on "The Maid of the Mist," Jaye becomes a modern-day Joan of Arc, reluctantly righting injustices under the cryptic guidance of the world's most obscure and kitschy knickknacks. Let's face it, being the spirit of the universe's bitch is no picnic.
Every once in a great while, an experience comes along that defies explanation. So different and so captivating, it's as if you're breathing fresh air for the first time. It immediately hooks you. You savor it. You crave it. And just like that, with little or no explanation, it's gone. A cruel twist of fate. Perhaps we just weren't ready for it. Perhaps its star burned as brightly as it could for as long as possible. Perhaps it was born into existence simply to show the world what could be, inspiring others to take up the torch and break new ground. Whatever the reason, you celebrate that experience and honor its passing. Such is the legacy of Wonderfalls.
In listening to co-creators Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle) and Bryan Fuller (Star Trek: Voyager) talk about the development of Wonderfalls, you sense the effortless energy and abundant passion that inspired its birth. It's the same fire and reverence you hear from Glen Gordon Canon and Jay Daniel on the creation of Moonlighting. Both were shows that few people understood or appreciated early on. But while Moonlighting was a network-owned show receiving a multi-season commitment and full promotional support, Wonderfalls was a mid-season replacement sentenced to death before its pilot ever aired.
Wonderfalls is a show that needs time to ferment. First, one has to understand that Jaye is more than she appears at face value -- a bitter, sarcastically depressed twentysomething. Here's a girl living like a third-class citizen in a family of professional go-getters. Dad Darrin is a doctor, mom Karen is an author and socialite, sister Sharon is an attorney, and brother Aaron is a PhD candidate; and then there's Jaye, who works retail for a kitschy tourist-trap gift shop at the mouth of the falls. Her meaningless work reflects the meaningless existence she's chosen to pursue. What Jaye fails to see is that the universe has been conspiring all along to prepare her for greater things. That patented cynicism enables her to see through the bullshit of everyday life and more easily discern the truth of any given situation. It's exactly the skill needed to restore balance to the scales of universal harmony...well, at least in this tiny, obscure hamlet of upstate New York. I mean, everybody has to start somewhere, right?
Now, here's the catch. Where fellow television heroine Joan Girardi (Joan of Arcadia) converses with God through various everyday people (kids, janitors, grandmothers), the universe speaks to Jaye through inanimate animal familiars -- slightly damaged wax zoo molds, stolen brass monkeys, grandmotherly cow creamers, the usual suspects. The only problem is these aren't two-way conversations. Jaye basically gets two or three words, which could easily apply to a half-dozen different people or situations in her life. At first she tries to ignore the weirdness, but that never works. Once you've found what it is you're supposed to do with your life, the powers that be aren't just going to let you walk away. So, after a fair amount of torture, she accepts that she's crazy, gives in to the pressure, and goes with it, eventually discovering there's a hell of a lot more to life than anyone ever expects.
Each of the series' 13 episodes is a smorgasbord of mistaken identities, hidden agendas, and wacky miscarriages of justice, in a world populated by the richest, most colorful characters television has seen in quite some time.
* Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas, Out Cold)
Some roles are simply made for people to play, and this is certainly the case here. You know the old entertainment line about you might not recognize me but "I'm huge in Canada"? Well, Dhavernas actually is! This French-Canadian-born actor has been a film and television star since her early teens, and she's certainly got the chops to prove it. She fills every frame with more life than 10 actors combined -- brilliant line reads, facial expressions that communicate days' worth of subtext, and a wicked little smile that can light up an entire town. While Dhavernas may be the centerpiece of this impressive nut farm, there are plenty of other squirrels that tend the fields.
* The Mouth Breather (Neil Grayston, Edgemont)
Jaye's supervisor at Wonderfalls. Played with the best Michael Ian Black-isms, he represents "The System," the way things are supposed to be because that's the way they've always been. Enforced mediocrity at its finest.
* Sharon Tyler (Katie Finneran, Night of the Living Dead)
Jaye's neurotic lawyer sister. A closet lesbian who does everything she possibly can to earn her parents' love, respect, and (most important) validation for the choices she's made. Until Jaye's awakening, she had never truly understood who she is and what she wants out of life. Finneran is a nut and a treasure to watch. The chemistry she shares with Dhavernas is priceless.
* Aaron Tyler (Lee Pace, Soldier's Girl)
Jaye's overly analytical brother. The perpetual student who hides behind facts and knowledge, to avoid living a life filled with uncertainty. Like Sharon, he's too concerned with what his parents think, which is why he spends so much time in therapy. Of the entire Tyler clan, Aaron is the most affected by Jaye's gift, as it undermines his entire belief structure, and at the same time frees him from it. Adam Scott (The Aviator) played the role of Aaron in the pilot, but was unable to commit to the series. When Pace took over the role, Fuller and Holland reshaped the character, taking Aaron in a much different direction than originally planned. Those who only saw the original broadcast run missed out on the development and significance Aaron's life -- and Pace's exceptional performance -- would play in the series run.
* Karen Tyler (Diana Scarwid, A Guy Thing)
Jaye's mother. The perfect socialite. Perceptions are her forte, and she wants everyone to know just how great things are for all the people in her life. She's the head cheerleader/homecoming queen/student council president who married a successful doctor, gave birth to three beautiful children, and paid somebody to raise them while she continued with other pursuits. Scarwid is perfection on ice. Each line read and reaction is a master class on comedy.
* Darrin Tyler (William Sadler, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey)
Jaye's father. An accomplished physician just now waking up to the fact that there is much more to life that what his wife maps out for him. Like Aaron, Darrin shows signs of being permanently changed by Jaye's experiences. Sadler is brilliant delivering Darrin's disconnected, deadpan lines with razor-sharp wit. He's also the perfect foil for Scarwid's manipulative perkiness.
* Mahandra McGinty (Tracie Thoms, Rent)
Jaye's best friend and constant reality check. She knows who she is, what her limitations are, and how to work around them. Sure, there could always be more to life, but she's content where she is. Unfortunately Jaye's new gig is throwing off her groove and forcing her to make choices she could never have imagined. Like Lee Pace, Thoms was not in the pilot. That actress was also unable to commit to the series, opening the door for Thoms to bring her own brand of sassiness to the role.
* Eric Gotts (Tyron Leitso, Dinotopia)
Jaye's pseudo-love interest. Here's a guy who came to Niagara Falls on his honeymoon only to walk in and find his wife servicing the hotel bellman. At that moment, he takes the reins and creates a new life for himself, leaving everything else behind. Eric is what we all aspire to be: enlightened. He would run away with Jaye in a heartbeat, but she is too afraid of venturing outside her comfort zone, despite all she's seen and done. As a result, she risks losing Eric...and herself in the process. Leitso is the perfect blend of sweetness-covered, slightly damaged goods. You can't help but root for the guy to get the girl, despite all odds.
The series started off as a quirky, offbeat comedy. From "Wax Lion" through "Wound-Up Penguin" (not surprisingly, Fox aired the first four episodes out of order), Jaye was awakened to the absurdity of life through the brevity of her spirit guides. Beginning to question her own sanity, she puts a lot of energy into keeping it all under wraps, but that kind of cover-up only goes so far. By the time we hit "Crime Dog," the series begins to take on a more serious tone, as Aaron is clued into Jaye's predicament. While the trademark wackiness never leaves, the plots become more message driven, with topics like social cruelty ("Muffin Buffalo"), stolen identity ("Barrel Bear"), and unchecked family dysfunction ("Lovesick Ass"). The return of Eric's estranged wife and Jaye's complete inability to express her true emotions accelerate the series into even darker territory. Potential marital infidelity ("Lying Pig"), the vengefulness of unrequited love ("Cocktail Bunny"), and embracing spirituality in a modern world ("Totem Mole") temper the show's humor with strong sociopolitical commentary. Everything comes to a head in the final episode ("Caged Bird"), with a strong indication that Holland and Fuller had every intention of taking a hard left turn, steering the series into even deeper and more meaningful waters. "Caged Bird" is not an entirely unexpected or unwelcome resolution, but it merely hints at the adventures that could have followed for Jaye, Eric, Mahandra, Aaron, and the rest of the Tyler clan. This world had a hundred more tales to tell, and it's disappointing we had to leave so soon. But that's life, isn't it? Appreciate what you have, because there's no guarantee on tomorrow.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is grade A: crisp, sharp, and unwavering. The color scheme is one of the boldest you'll see on TV, punctuating this Bazooka Joe comic-strip adventure with vibrant primary colors contrasted with deep blacks, purples, and oranges. The show was shot and edited more like a film than a series, loaded with moments inspired by David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Darrin Morgan. The production team has created a world unlike anything television has ever seen; a strange and vibrant landscape, populated by more colorful residents -- both real and computer generated -- than can be found in Twin Peaks and Eerie, Indiana combined. Wonderfalls is a template series Hollywood creatives would be wise to borrow from.
Just as an aside, I often wonder if the BBC doesn't have the best format for television production -- six-episode seasons, such as Steven Moffat's Coupling or Ricky Gervais's The Office, developed and produced as creativity inspires and time permits, and aired by the network each or every other year. Stateside, the FX network has adopted a somewhat similar approach with shows like Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck, creating exceptionally produced 13-episode seasons and leaving fans clamoring for more. Wonderfalls would have fit that mold perfectly, giving Holland, Fuller, and crew time to create wacky new adventures for Jaye, away from the heavy-handed interference of misguided network executives. Something to consider for the future, but I digress.
Keeping pace with the quality of the show, Fox has assembled an exceptional collection of bonus materials. Six episode commentaries lead the parade, with fun and engaging stories from Todd Holland, Brian Fuller, Caroline Dhavernas, and Katie Finneran. Don't pass these up, because you will learn more about this series than you ever thought possible. The post-wrap "Greetings From Wonderfalls" documentary gives fans insight into the rise and fall of the series they've long been clamoring for. The brief "Fantastic Visual Effects" featurette applauds CORE Digital Effects and effects supervisor Kyle Menzies's exceptional work in creating the muses who deliver the universe's messages to Jaye. Finally, the music video for Andy Partridge's finger-poppin' theme song is just plain fun, mixing episode clips with cast members boppin' around the show's various sets. The only thing that keeps this from being a perfect set is the omission of the original pilot episode.
Had the network given Wonderfalls a full-season commitment and complete promotional support, this would have been the watercooler show of the 2003-4 season. It's just that good! The writing and direction are fresh and inventive. The cast is one of the finest ensembles ever assembled. And the message it conveys is something we rarely see: Life is an adventure rich with unforeseen possibilities, so quit trying to control everything and enjoy the ride! Purchasing this DVD set sends a signal to the entertainment industry that audiences will seek out quality entertainment, despite the shortsightedness of network programming executives.
This court finds Fox Television executives guilty of first-degree series-cide. Their continued inability to see and appreciate the valuable assets they have on hand calls for a change in management and direction. Sentence is set for 50 seasons of solitary confinement with nothing but continuous reruns of excruciatingly painful shows that should have never lasted one season, let alone eight or ten, handpicked by Wonderfalls fans. Justice is served. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2005 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2005 Nominee
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 570 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Six Episode Commentaries with Co-Creators Todd Holland and Brian Fuller and Actors Caroline Dhavernas and Katie Finneran
* Documentary: "Greetings From Wonderfalls"
* Featurette: "Fantastic Visual Effects"
* Music Video
* Official Site
* Save Wonderfalls
* Get Her Words Out
* Welcome to Wonderfalls Online