Wonderfalls 1×03: Karma Chameleon

Wonderfalls 1x03

[Writer: Tim Minear | Director: Marita Grabiak | Aired: 3/19/2004 ]

“Buh… Buh… Buh-bye!” – Jaye

When the term “Generation Y” was coined in the early 1990s, it mostly functioned as a placeholder. The “Generation X” phase was over, and a new label was needed for the children and teens fast aging towards a new millennium. So naturally, we simply chose to follow the alphabet.

But as the 21st century approached, bringing with it advancements in technology that the younger generation swiftly took to, a new term entered the lexicon. Popularized by books like Millenials Rising (published, appropriately enough, in the year 2000), the word grew in its usage, encompassing not merely an age group (the specific years included in each era somewhat varied based on the source, anyway), but a lifestyle. By the time the 2010s dawned, the word “millennial” had come to refer collectively – and often negatively – to the younger generation of America, who develop assertive viewpoints, rebel against authority, and shut themselves off from the outside world with the help of cliques and social bubbles.

The description doesn’t feel too different from that of youngsters in generations past. But there’s a subtle difference: What used to refer simply to teenagers has now spread to twentysomethings as well, with the grip of technology and social media enrapturing and ensconcing people well after they finish high school. The phrase “millennial” has thus become a weapon of the older generation, designed to dismiss the youthful as petty and narcissistic.

I don’t know how much of this commentary Bryan Fuller was pondering when he created Wonderfalls, a series which aired midway through the decade of terminological transition. But he clearly recognized these traits in Jaye Tyler. She’s rude, cranky, consistently shirks responsibility, and often shuts herself off from the rest of the world. And these traits would all make her an insufferable character if they weren’t so true to life.

No, not all millennials are as self-involved as Jaye is. But we’ve all met people like her and, at times, we haven’t stopped ourselves from acting like her. We’re only human, after all, and we can be just as self-involved as the seemingly out-of-touch Gen Xers. But it can certainly be difficult to acknowledge that. In fact, it would probably take a living mirror image to help us acknowledge our flaws.

And that’s where “Karma Chameleon” comes in. In this episode, Jaye comes face-to-face with Bianca, a young woman intent on imitating everything about her – her hair, her clothes, and her lifestyle. But what initially appears to be a stalker-type storyline – a riff on Single White Female, as a perturbed Jaye attests – turns into something more complex when Bianca even starts adopting Jaye’s personality.

There’s not a lot of subtlety in the themes of “Karma Chameleon,” which is par for the course for Wonderfalls – the episode gets much of its pleasure from satirizing, rather than dramatizing, Jaye’s ordeal. But the satire is perfectly on point, particularly when Jaye slowly realizes that she’s trained her young prodigy all-too-well, and created a second Jaye who’s every bit as narcissistic as the first.

And the problem finally hits home when Jaye’s family enters the picture. Jaye is clearly an outsider in the Tyler clan (starting with the fact that he name doesn’t rhyme with all the others), and Bianca only brings that fact to the surface. Once she begins her transformation, Darrin and Karen can’t tell her apart from their own daughter, and she does a better job integrating herself into the family circle than Jaye ever did. The debate surrounding a book blurb (in which Jaye only receives five words, one of which is a digit) demonstrates how little her family knows of her, and more importantly, how little she’s accomplished.

There is no great solution granted to Jaye at the end of “Karma Chameleon” – but as she informs her family, both she and her blurb are a work in progress. Bianca’s attempts to mimic her have only exposed and exploited Jaye’s flaws – at home, at work, and at life in general. These are not issues that will be solved quickly; but then, few issues of millennial life are.

“Karma Chameleon” occurs rather early in the Wonderfalls production cycle (and is even earlier in terms of airdate, as it premiered the week after the pilot), and we are not yet accustomed enough to Jaye for a supposed “mirror image” of her to bear any lasting reflection. Nevertheless, the story we’re given is engaging and unpredictable, and gives some thoughtful commentary on the world of Gen Y. (Or, as the end of the episode so humanizes it, “Jen Why.”) It’s the first true promise of what Wonderfalls can truly become, and what later episodes will aspire to be.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Jaye accepting the wallet Bianca gives her… and only then realizing it really is hers.
+ Jaye guessing Bianca’s name with the help of some gift shop keychains.
+ Mahandra emulating Hannibal Lecter. Could this be Fullerverse foreshadowing?
+ Mouth-Breather, eye patch, swivel chair.
+ Sharon’s mention in Jaye’s article: “A sister, 35.”

Score: A-


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