While muddling through the last week of deadlines, deadlines and more deadlines, I watched through the 2004 FOX series “Wonderfalls.” Here was a show slated to debut in 2003, delayed until early 2004, and then only aired three times even though 13 episodes had been filmed. It was produced by Bryan Fuller of the worthless “Dead Like Me” and Tim Minear of the quite worthwhile “Firefly.” I didn’t know what to expect – was it going to be unbearably “different” like Fuller’s work? Was it going to make the most of its fantasy hook like Minear’s? Was the apparent overacting of its stars, as seen from the promos, going to drive me insane?
Roll call: Yes, yes, and yes.
“Wonderfalls,” as you’ve forgotten by now, was the story of 24-year old slacker Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), a clerk in a Niagra Falls gift shop, who suddenly starts communing with the hideous chatchki she sells. Wax lions, teddy bears, and snake decals on T-shirts start giving her cryptic messages like “Save him from her!” and “Give him heart!” She (overactingly) talks back to them (out loud, for some reason), and after finding that nothing good comes of disobeying them, does whatever they say.
This is all written and filmed with a Costo-sized supply of cheekiness. The writers make every character sarcastic and witty (even the rubes are witty in a deadpan way). Oddly, they make all the female characters irksome and all the male characters flawless. This becomes a problem when Jaye meets Eric (Tyron Leitso), a newlywed whose wife was giving head to a bellhop in their honeymoon suite when he walked in the door. Eric went AWOL from his marriage and his life in New Jersey and settled in Niagra to bartend, and he’s absolutely saintly and perfect and characterless. He is immediately interested in Jaye; there is no downside to dating him; even though he’s funny and you enjoy watching him flirt with Jaye, one of the three stools of the show’s plot becomes completely predictable.
After a few episodes, after I watched Jaye extend fairly mundane problems into 43-minute sagas, I watched one of the features on this DVD set and learned that the show’s producers and writers provide the voices of the chatchkis. So I figured out the mystery of the talking animals – they are the disembodied spirits of lazy writers. When Jaye’s family’s French-Canadian maid is deported, the chatchkis don’t warn her about that. They tell her to ask the maid to make breakfast, which delays her so the INS has time to arrive and arrest her. Then they tell her to “bring her home,” and direct her to the house of her actual parents, who loathe her. So they tell her again to “bring her home,” and she arrives back to the Tyler household after some bureaucratic wrangling… which could have been dealt with originally if the chatchkis had, you know, told Jaye to file her maid’s citizenship papers.
The gimmick fades after a few episodes… it’s a little like “Scrubs,” which cut down on its fantasy sequences just when they were getting tiresome. And when we’re left with Jaye and her not-boyfriend and her family, this is a kitschy (was there a special on fishbowl lenses?) but cute series. It probably didn’t deserve its fate; it’s at least worth renting.