[Contains a selection of antique clocks and SPOILERS!!!]
I can’t help feeling sorry for Bryan Fuller sometimes… I mean, he’s enjoyed more professional success than I ever will, but it seems like every time he manages to get a new show on the air everyone just starts counting down under their breath to its inevitable cancellation! Speaking of which, just a couple days after I admitted I was hooked on Hannibal, NBC sadistically dropped the axe on it, and Fuller slouched off to start work on his next project.* He’s like the Littlest Hobo of showrunners… down the road is where he’ll always be…
But where was he in 2004? Why, working on Wonderfalls, of course! This quirky comedy-drama starred Caroline Dhavernas as ‘Jaye Tyler’, an Ivy-league-graduate turned tourist-trap-sales-clerk who has a near-death experience near the “wishing well” outside her workplace, and starts receiving oblique prompts from the universe to help people in need, via various stuffed animals and cartoon mascots! Personally, I found this premise pretty charming for the first few episodes, but it really started to chafe as the season wore on… mostly because the “messages” that Jaye received were often unnecessarily obtuse, suggesting that the writers simply needed to jerk Jaye (and the audience) around for a while so that their episode would reach the required running time, even if that meant the script creaked with contrivance and chicanery, rather than puckish ingenuity.
I think the show worked best when Jaye was given a direct instruction (such as spitting her chewing gum out on a hospital corridor floor), which then set off an unforeseeable chain of events resulting in a positive progression or “happy ending” for multiple people. When the animals simply told her to “Save him from her!”, without specifying (or even hinting) who either party might be, it just led to an increasingly irritating series of misunderstandings and misfires, that had my finger hovering over the fast-forward button. Sadly, this intentional vagueness also had the knock-on effect of hobbling the central romance between Jaye and her unhappily-married man-candy ‘Eric’ (Tyron Leitso)… though his whole estrangement from a newly-wed wife was pretty problematic to begin with, and seemed like yet another needless complication in their star-crossed romance… as if her belief that God and/or Satan was talking to her through inanimate objects wasn’t enough of an obstacle already!
One thing you can always say in Fuller’s favour – even when the vast majority of the American viewing public are cruelly indifferent to his work – is that he always manages to attract a top-notch cast to flesh out his characters! Although Jaye could be a little dickish at times, Dhavernas made for a very amusing, adaptable, and appealing lead actress… especially when she deployed that irresistible smile of hers! And she was ably supported by Katie Finneran as Jaye’s uptight elder sister ‘Sharon’, Lee Pace as her philosophical slacker brother ‘Aaron’, William Sadler as their fogey-ish father ‘Darrin’, Diana Scarwid as their waspy mother ‘Karen’… plus Tracie Thoms as Jaye’s bolshy BFF, ‘Mahandra’! They all played their parts to perfection, and a lot of my favourite scenes from the series involved two or more family members just hanging out and bantering/bickering together!
The episodic cast was equally stacked with talent: Kari Matchett debuted in ep #1.1 as ‘Beth’, a woman Sharon starts dating after Jaye tries to set her up on a blind-date with Beth’s ex-husband! She then recurs in two more episodes, as Sharon tries to hide their relationship (and her sexuality) from her family. (#1.4/9) Meanwhile, Kathryn Greenwood appeared as ‘Ronnie”, a rude customer who complains about a misshapen wax lion she’s received from a vending machine in Jaye’s store, which then becomes our heroine’s first muse… and Chelan Simmons made her first appearance as Jaye’s girly frenemy ‘Gretchen Speck-Horowitz’, but I’ve already raved about her in a previous post. Sarah Drew appeared in ep #1.3 as ‘Bianca Knowles’ (aka “Binky”), an insecure identity thief who tries to “Single White Female” Jaye.** Carrie Preston appeared in ep #1.4 as ‘Sister Katrina’, a cheese-obsessed nun who’d lost her faith, and taken to living in Eric’s bar. Audrey Wasilewski appeared in ep #1.5 as ‘Yvette’, the Tyler family’s beloved French-Canadian housekeeper, who turns out to be an illegal immigrant… while Joan Gregson played her emotionally/geographically distant mother ‘Helen’. Beth Grant appeared in ep #1.6 as ‘Marianne Marie Beattle’, a muffin-bakin’ neighbour of Jaye’s who would later crossover into an episode of Pushing Daisies! Rue McClanahan appeared in ep #1.6 as ‘Millie Marcus’, a local legend who claims to be the first American woman to travel over Niagara Falls in a barrel (and live!)… even though it was actually the far-less-fame-hungry ‘Vivian Caldwell’ (Louise Fletcher) who really took the tumble.
Magdalena Alexander appeared in ep #1.8 as ‘Katya’, a lovesick Russian “mail-order bride” who was wooed over the internet by a precocious 13-year-old boy (Spencer Breslin). The late Kellie Waymire made her final professional appearance in ep #1.9 as ‘Penelope’, a super-cute ornithologist at the local zoo, who gets demoted and then loses her job altogether thanks to Jaye’s meddling. This episode also saw the debut of Jewel Staite as Eric’s cheating wife ‘Heidi’, who made for a very implausible and unsuccessful love rival, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever (besides looking like Jewel Staite, I mean). Meh. She returned for three more episodes (#1.10-11/13), but there was really nothing keeping her and Eric together, beyond his misplaced sense of duty, and the writers’ desire to screw with Jaye (and the audience) some more! Patricia Zentilli appeared in ep #1.12 as ‘Angie Olsen’, a crazy lady looking to frame Jaye for the murder of their therapist (as well as the “dirty protest” left in his desk drawer). Finally, Alex Rice appeared in ep #1.12 as ‘Deanna Littlefoot’, a hard-ass lawyer riding roughshod over the residents of a local reservation, while Kyra Harper played ‘Gentlefeather’, the spirit of a recently-deceased seer trying to temper Deanna’s dictatorial attitude.
Verdict: Despite my frustrations , I found Wonderfalls quite enjoyable, and even got a little teary now and again… so I’m glad I watched it all the way through, but it’s not a series I feel any desire to own and relive on DVD.
* A TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods… which I haven’t read, but Gaiman’s work is never less than awesome, so it could be a pretty great show… while it lasts…
** The resolution to this story was especially disappointing, as throughout the episode Jaye was instructed to help Binky find her “voice” as a journalist, but then ended up writing the pivotal magazine article by herself without any reference to Binky’s notes… so how was that Binky’s voice, exactly? Tch!