[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writers: Todd Holland & Bryan Fuller | Director: Todd Holland | Aired: 3/12/2004 ]
“You can’t talk. You don’t have a larynx. If you don’t have a larynx, you can’t talk. Got it? You can’t talk!” – Jaye
In retrospect, it never had a chance.
Wonderfalls was originally slated to debut on FOX in the fall of 2003. The pilot had been shot several months prior, and was all set to see the light of day. During the brief window between the summer press tour and the fall premieres, it looked like Bryan Fuller’s strange but delightful new show would be a commercial success, and compensate for the previous season’s cancellation of Firefly.
But FOX, despite its growing street cred in the industry, was a paragon of unconventionality. During the early 2000s, the network would not premiere its fall seasons until November, using the months in between to promote sports and reality competitions. (The logic was that airing an entire 22-episode season between November and May, with as few breaks as possible, would keep viewers from tuning out along the way.)
In September 2003, while FOX was still hyping the MLB playoffs, CBS debuted a series called Joan of Arcadia. The series, which focused on a high school girl with the ability to talk to God, was an immediate hit, both critically and commercially. It filled the spiritual gap left by Touched by an Angel, and would even earn some love from the Emmy Awards (including a nomination for Outstanding Drama).
FOX executives saw the first few episodes of Joan of Arcadia, and immediately panicked. Swap “God” with “animal figurines,” and Joan wasn’t far off in terms of premise from the upcoming Wonderfalls. Fearing that viewers would see their show as a cheap knockoff, FOX pulled Wonderfalls from the fall schedule and withheld it till the following March. (I have yet to figure out how that would make viewers think of it as less of a knockoff.)
But that was just one of many adjustments that afflicted the unfortunate Wonderfalls. FOX was worried that the original pilot would be too confusing and alienating to regular viewers, so they ordered it reshot. The new pilot recast a few roles (from Adam Scott to Lee Pace, and Kerry Washington to Tracie Thoms) and added a few extra scenes designed to make the show more accessible to viewers.
Then, just to prove how much they cared about hooking viewers, FOX scheduled the show on a Friday night, advertised it a romantic comedy(?), changed the timeslot to Thursday night without telling anyone, aired the episodes out of order, and cancelled it less than a month after its premiere.
I’m not going to spend the whole review ragging on FOX, which had their hands full that same season promoting The OC and wondering why nobody was watching Arrested Development. But taking all the tampering and time-swapping into consideration, it’s amazing that Wonderfalls even made it to the airwaves in the first place.
With a grand total of 13 episodes (only four of which even aired on FOX), Wonderfalls could have easily faded away into the TV ether. But the show has inspired a small yet devoted fanbase, which (unsuccessfully) campaigned for the show’s revival and continues to rewatch and enjoy the show to this day. I personally have long been fascinated by the myriad things Wonderfalls tries to be –a family drama, a dark comedy, a psychological study – and the ways it attempts to combine its various tones and ingredients into a satisfying whole. It all makes for an intriguing little series, even if not every swing makes for a direct hit.
Take the pilot, for example. “Wax Lion” is not a bad start to the series, nor a bad example of how to establish a premise pilot. It introduces all the characters with appropriate amounts of screentime and sets up the foundation of the show – animal figurines talk to an acerbic gift shop worker and convince her assist those in need. It has some clever jokes, a few neat setpieces, and special effects that succeed at being both disarmingly funny and disturbingly creepy.
But much like the titular figurine that gives Jaye her first bit of otherworldly advice, “Wax Lion” has some noticeable defects. In trying to establish Jaye’s reluctant connection with the animal objects, the episode hops, skips, and jumps across the dramatic path. Jaye takes a long while to pay attention to the little lion, yet along the way, she has no problem stealing a monkey bookend from her psychiatrist’s office. (No problem as far as we can tell, that is; the episode unwisely skips over the scene where the monkey instructs her to steal him). The early scene where Jaye throws her quarter into the fountain – inserted into the finished pilot when FOX asked for her powers to be given an “origin” scene – defies several laws of physics even before the episode prepares to defy several laws of nature. (A later scene, in which Jaye chases a rogue quarter down a busy boulevard, in more successful, since we’ve by then been properly introduced to the show’s unconventional side.)
But where the episode struggles with tone, it flourishes with character. Jaye Tyler is not a particularly complex lead – she’s abrasive and antisocial, and her animal guides are clearly meant to show her the benefits of helping others. But even when she’s not communicating with plastic souvenirs and questioning her own sanity, her attitude and environment characterize her as more than just an obnoxious grump.
From the (rather creative) opening exposition sequence, it’s clear that Jaye has little patience for Native American legends, viewing them as an easy hook to sell colored T-shirts to slack-jawed tourists. She dismisses the feminist underpinnings of the legend (the god spared the princess “because she was hot”) and rolls her eyes at those reluctant to use the term “Indians.” She’s stuck in a dead-end job at a cheesy gift shop, working for an obnoxious manager who beat her for the job due to his superior “people skills.” She sees right through the facile world of merchandising, and isn’t afraid to let her customers see it, either. (It’s a feeling made meta by the View-Master-style transitions, which give each establishing shot a superficial feel. In the world of Wonderfalls, everything seems two-dimensional… at first.)
Jaye, of course, soon learns that the merchandise at Wonderfalls is far from lifeless. And her journey to accept them and heed their advice will be an instrumental component of the show’s brief but impactful run. As a pilot, “Wax Lion” offer a serviceable introductory case, as Jaye helps a jilted delivery guy find love again. It touches upon the first of many Tyler family issues that the series will explore – that being the relationship between Jaye and sister Sharon.
The Jaye/Sharon interactions are among the best scenes in the episode, characterizing the sibling dynamic between the two in a cynical yet authentic light. Jaye thinks little of her sister (“She hates me,” she bluntly tells the psychiatrist early in the episode), and sees her as a means to an end, a quick and easy way to solve the conflict of the week. But by the end, she not only finds a partner for Thomas the delivery guy, but begins helping her sister emerge from the closet. (Another arc that will carry for much of the series.) The reveal that Sharon is gay is handled with little fanfare, but there’s enough to show us that Jaye doesn’t know her family all that well – and is only about to start learning.
Over the course of the show’s one and only season, we too will learn more about Jaye and the likably dysfunctional Tyler family, even as the explanation behind the talking animal muses remains shrouded in mystery. As a show that values character over mythology, and (usually) story over quirk, the series is both delightful and intriguing, and I look forward to rewatching and reviewing each episode over the next few weeks. So please, join me in doing something the original network never did: Giving Wonderfalls a chance.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The opening sequence is a lot of fun, and the narration characterizes Jaye quite well.
+ The flashback scene showing Jaye lose out on the managerial job. The look on Alec’s face when he holds up his badge characterizes him for the entire series.
+ Jaye glaring at the guy who lost his quarter. Makes perfect sense that the quarter which instigates all the craziness doesn’t even belong to her in the first place.
+ The monkey is creepy before it even says “I love you.”
+ The rolling quarter!
+ The wax lion singing a (rather off-key) rendition of “Hello Ma Baby.” Would be funnier of it were a wax frog, but still…
+ The botched tracheotomy. Seriously, kids, don’t try that at home.