Wonderfalls 1×02: Pink Flamingos

Wonderfalls 1x02[Writers: Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts | Director: Todd Holland | Aired: 4/1/2004 ]

“I’m a puppet.” – Jaye

“Pink Flamingos” was the last episode of Wonderfalls to air on Fox before the network cancelled it. This may sound startling, given that it’s only the second episode in the lineup. But “Pink Flamingos” actually was the fourth episode to air, even though it takes place chronologically before “Karma Chameleon” and “Wound-Up Penguin.”

It might not seem like the biggest deal, but jumping straight from the pilot to “Karma Chameleon” ignores an important stepping stone in the development of Wonderfalls. “Wax Lion” may have established the premise of the series, but “Pink Flamingos” is the first episode to put that premise into action.

The basic outline is not particularly surprising: An animal muse tells Jaye to help someone in need; she reluctantly obeys, only to run into several hardships along the way, and winds up learning a valuable lesson in the end. Plotwise, “Pink Flamingos” is one of the show’s most straightforward episodes, functioning mainly to accustom us to the show’s unusual storylines.

But as will become traditional with Wonderfalls, it’s the execution where things get interesting. Not bound by the expositional constraints of the pilot, “Pink Flamingos” has more freedom to explore Jaye’s character, along with her relationships with those around her.

And on that level, “Pink Flamingos” is surprisingly profound. The pilot painted Jaye as almost entirely antisocial, a trailer-park recluse who snapped at anyone and everyone around her. The second episode, however, deepens her personality and intriguingly tests her social limitations. While the wax lion’s advice functioned as a wake-up call about the virtues of helping others, the muses in this episode (which include the titular flamingos, a mounted fish, and a decorative chicken) force Jaye to ask a different question: How far would she go?

Jaye feels genuinely bad when her father is hit by their car (even if the accident wasn’t directly her fault), and repeatedly asks to help him recover. But her family has little use for her definition of “help,” an indication of how distantly she’s grown from them. Conversely, she balks at the idea of helping former classmate Gretchen Speck, a Valley Girl-type who tries far too hard to convince Jaye to befriend her.

Jaye perceives Gretchen as the generic perfect girl whose life took off after graduation, while she got stuck selling wax figurines at a souvenir shop. But in truth, Gretchen’s “happy life” is as plastic as the flamingos on Jaye’s lawn. She’s landed a husband, but only after converting to his religion, and it’s obvious from her superficial take on Judaism – a Fiddler on the Roof-inspired wedding, a “Hava Nagila” ringtone – that she sees religion only as a means to an end. (As Jaye deduced during Gretchen’s brief cameo in the pilot episode: “So you don’t really believe in it.”) Feeling neglected by her husband, Gretchen breaks down in anger and confusion: “What more does he want?!”

Gretchen and Jaye may be radically different in personality and lifestyle, but they reflect one another’s traits in remarkable ways. Jaye is brutally tactless – she intercepts a phone call from Eric’s girlfriend by stating that “he’s servicing me sexually.” Gretchen, on the other hand, lives a lie, and expects her husband and all her friends to buy into it. Jaye’s forthrightness gets results, causing Eric to fall in love with her; Gretchen’s façade fools no one, to the point that Robert ends up neglecting her.

The best scene of “Pink Flamingos” doesn’t even involve Jaye – or any of the show’s other regulars, for that matter. It occurs between Gretchen and Chuck, a handsome military man who arrives near the episode’s end to sweep her off her feet. We’re initially led to believe that Chuck will be the man to bring Gretchen true happiness, giving her unbiased love in a way that Robert never did. But that’s not what happens. Though Gretchen is flattered by Chuck’s compliments, she realizes that his love for her is as vapid as hers for Robert. For all the work she put in to outwardly impress others, Gretchen never took a moment to look inward. Chuck, then, merely loves her for her beautiful exterior; he’s never had anything more to process about her.

It’s the sort of subversive characterization that Wonderfalls will traffic in throughout its run. This very same episode, in fact, features some extra development for Sharon, nicely following up on her relationship with Beth from the pilot. (This is why you need to air these episode in order, FOX! Okay, I’ll stop now.) It might seem commonplace now, but as recently as 2004, gay relationships were difficult to find taken seriously on primetime network dramas. The relationship between Sharon and Beth, however, succeeds by maintaining the humorous tone that defines the show, while also treating its implications with nuance and care. The episode gives both women time to work out their conflicted feelings, while also throwing in a humorous punchline at the end (“Did you know our basic cable comes with lesbian porn?”).

The episode’s primary thread is wrapped up in satisfying fashion, as Gretchen liberates herself from both Robert (who gets an amusingly happy ending of his own) and Chuck, and tells Jaye off in the process. It’s an outward victory for Gretchen, but a hazy one for Jaye, whose good deed was only accomplished by publicly embarrassing her classmate. But this parallels nicely with her role in her dad’s injury, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise once the doctors discover a blood clot in his leg. Turns out the pain and stress was worth it all along.

At this early stage, the world of Wonderfalls still doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense. Jaye disobeys the flamingos during the teaser sequence, yet the disaster that results proves beneficial in the end. And the episode oscillates so many times on Jaye’s feelings towards Gretchen that it threatens to undermine the payoff. Nevertheless, “Pink Flamingos” succeeds where it matters, in character, story, and message. It’s a strong sophomore effort, setting the tone for even better episodes to come.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The flamingo balloon. An early sign that Jaye might be going off her rocker.
+ Gretchen’s been pilgrimaging in Israel. Of course she has.
+ A rendition of “We Used to be Friends” plays as background music, not long before the song became inextricably tied to Veronica Mars.
+ Every “Shalom!” out of Gretchen’s mouth is the best thing ever.
+ Eric, you’ve got some fireworks in your eye…
+ “There’s mace… but no connection.”
+ The montage of Robert’s nice Jewish life. Oy vey.

– The ambulance transition is jarring, and momentarily took me out of the story.
– “Class of 1998.” If this is a six-and-a-half-year reunion, wouldn’t it be the class of ‘97?

Score: B+

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