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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Wonderfalls

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I take a peek at one of the many, many movies in my collection.  Once again, I attempt to tackle a TV series, Wonderfalls.  This is originally dated August 5, 2013.

As I mentioned before, I have quite a few "brilliant, but cancelled" TV shows in my collection, and I'm still not sure how best to tackle them in this column.  This is only the second time I've done it, but right now it looks like its going to be "re-watch the pilot, and then offer general reflections on the show."  And this time, it's a quirky comedy-drama-fantasy that I loved called Wonderfalls.

I discovered this show thanks to its connection to Star Trek.  It was created by a guy called Bryan Fuller.  Fuller got his break as a Hollywood writer as a writer on Star Trek: Voyager.  When Voyager ended, he set out to start selling some of his original TV show ideas.  His first one was the cult classic Dead Like Me.  However, Fuller quit working on Dead Like Me by the end of the third episode or so.  With all the restrictions that the network was placing on him, he knew that Dead Like Me was deviating far from the original path he originally plotted for it.  Which brings us to his second series, Wonderfalls.

Again, Wonderfalls was on the Fox Network, which still has a reputation for not giving shows a chance and cancelling them really, really early.  Even before Wonderfalls premiered, Fuller began to suspect he wouldn't have a chance.  So, he decided to rally the Trekkies.  He took to the Star Trek websites and message boards and said, "Umm...hey guys.  I really feel dirty pimping my work like this, but I created this TV show called Wonderfalls that I'm kinda proud of.  We're on Fox, so we're probably going to wind up on the 'brilliant, but canceled' scrapheap.  It premieres in a few days, so I'd really appreciate it if you watched it.  Thank you."

How could a Trekkie like myself resist an invitation like that?

Had a craving to pop Wonderfalls in the DVD player and re-watch a bit when it was announced earlier this week that Fuller is re-teaming with his Wondefalls star Caroline Dhavernas for his new series, HannibalHannibal is a prequel to the entire Hannibal Lecter franchise, following the adventures of FBI profiler Will Graham and psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, before Lecter's villainy was known and Graham had to arrest him.  In these halcyon days, they were allegedly a profiler super-team.  Like a lot of folks, I'm cynically expecting it to be Dexter watered-down for mainstream television.  But it's Fuller, and I like his stuff, so I'll still be checking it out.

Anyway, Wonderfalls.  Dhavernas plays Jaye Tyler, recently graduated from university with a philosophy degree, back in her home town of Niagara Falls, living in a trailer park, and clerkin' in a gift shop.  She is an incredibly bitter and cynical young woman.  In fact, she eventually reveals that her bitterness is why she chose her job as a gift store clerk.  She can be as rude as she wants to the customers, and know she's never going to see them again, because 99% of the customers are tourists. 

Needless to say, she is the black sheep of her family, because she comes from a family of overachievers.  Her father Darren is a highly respected doctor.  Her mother Karen is a best-selling travel writer.  Her sister Sharon is a high-powered immigration lawyer.  And her brother Aaron (played by Fuller's future Pushing Daisies star Lee Pace) is a professional student, going back to university for his second Ph.D. 

The pilot opens with Jaye doing her clerk thing, sassing the customers and just being generally bitchy.  Her bitterness increases when she's passed over for a promotion to assistant manager, with the position instead going to a (literally) mouthbreathing teenager.  But then something happens after lunch.  A customer complains about a little wax lion she bought. As they begin to negotiate the return...the wax lion begins talking to Jaye.  The wax lion tells Jaye not to give the customer her money back.  Jaye does so anyway, and the woman is promptly robbed as soon as she leaves the store. 

And that's the show, ladies and gentlemen.  All these inanimate objects begin talking to Jaye, and force her to do random acts of kindness to help those around her. 

Needless to say, after witnessing this whole event, Jaye faints.  Fearing that her dead end job has finally caused her to crack, her family intervenes, but of course, Jaye really doesn't want to tell them that objects have started speaking to her.  So, like most folks in their early 20s, she decides to deal with it by going drinking.  At the bar, we meet Jaye's best friend Mahandra (played by by Traci Thoms, who, after this, went on to star in Quentin Tarintino's Death Proof.)  We also meet Jaye's love interest for the series, Eric.

Now, Eric.  I love it when he introduces himself, because, quite frankly, he gives, what I feel to be, one of the most horrific/comedic backstories ever.  It all begins when his cellphone goes off in his pocket, and he ignores it.  Jaye asks why he's ignoring it, and Eric says that it's probably his wife.  "Well, I don't know if she's me wife," Eric cryptically says.  Jaye asks why, and we hear Eric's tale of woe.  Like lots of folks, he and his wife came to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon.  When they got settled in their hotel, he ran down to the hotel's gift shop to pick up a few things.  Five minutes later, he came back to their hotel room to find his new wife blowing the bellboy.  Their marriage was just a few days old, he literally turned his back for five minutes, and his wife was already cheating on him.  In shock, he turned around, wandered around in the rain for a bit, eventually stopped in the bar, and drank for three days.  He then ends his story by saying that the bar owner offered him a job as the bartender "when the numbness stopped."  After hearing this tale, Jaye offers her drink back to Eric, which he promptly downs.

As the series progresses, Jaye and Eric wind up having a very flirty relationship, and I'll get into that later.

Back to the main plot, following the whole fainting spell, Jaye's mother encourages Jaye to see her therapist.  At the therapist's office, one of the therapist's paperweights - a brass monkey - begins talking to Jaye.  (In case you haven't figured it out, Jaye is the only one who can see these things talking and hear them.)  Jaye swipes the brass monkey and walks out of the therapist's office.  Later that day, Jaye's mother confronts Jaye about this at work.  Jaye's mother brought Sharon along, and Sharon is seen chatting with the delivery guy.  When that ends, the talking wax lion gets Jaye to fish a coin out of the fountain outside the store.  The eagle on the back of the coin skwacks, frightening Jaye, and she ends up chasing the quarter down the street as it rolls away.  This leads Jaye to the purse that was stolen from that customer earlier in the show. 

Jaye returns the purse, but the paranoid tourist thinks this is some kind of scam, and Jaye and the tourist get into a brawl.  Jaye calls Sharon to come bail her out of jail, and that's when we learn that these sisters don't have much of a sisterly relationship.  Back home that night, the wax lion tells Jaye that she has to set up Sharon with that delivery guy she was talking to earlier.  So, she does that.  The delivery guy is newly divorced, and this is his first time back on the dating scene.  When Jaye leaves the two alone, that's when Sharon lets loose with her big secret, in an attempt to let down the delivery guy gently.  It turns out Sharon is a Lesbian, and she hasn't come out to her family yet.  Needless to say, delivery guy is hurt and upset by this, angrily telling Jaye about Sharon's homosexuality by asking, "Did you know about this?" and before Jaye can answer, delivery guy has an allergic reaction to his dinner and Jaye and Sharon have to rush delivery guy to the hospital.

At the hospital, Sharon meets the delivery guy's ex-wfie, who's still on the emergency contact forms.  Turns out she's a Lesbian, too, and she and Sharon hit it off.  Delivery guy hits it off with his nurse, and it looks like everyone's getting a happy ending (especially the delivery guy, if his facial expressions during his sponge bath are to be believed).  Jaye goes home to find Sharon waiting for her.  They talk about Sharon being gay and all, and they finally start to form a sisterly bond.  Whatever mysterious plan the talking objects had, it seems to have come to its end.

And that's the show.  In each episode, a new inanimate object begins talking to Jaye, usually in very vague, cryptic statements, encouraging her to do these random acts of kindness to better her friends and family and the random tourists who come through Niagara Falls.  The comedy comes from the fact that, as I mentioned, Jaye is a very bitter and caustic young woman, so she's doing nice things against her will. 

So, some other reflections on the show.  As I mentioned, Jaye's brother Aaron had a neat arc.  As I said, he was going back for another Ph.D.  This time around, he's studying comparative religions.  And he boasts that, being an Atheist, he'll be able do what no other comparative religions major has ever been able to do:  compare religions objectively.   But then, as they series progresses, Jaye confides in him the whole "talking inanimate objects" thing, hoping that there'll be something in his studies to explain what's happened to her.  While Aaron is skeptical at first, and even though he can't see the things talk for himself, he soon sees enough evidence that Jaye is telling the truth.  Confronted with the possibility that there is, indeed, a higher power in the universe, Aaron has an existential crisis.  And not, "Holy moly, God is real, I should start going to church."  It's more like, "My valued objectivity is ruined!  Now what am I doing to do with my life?"

The series ended with a story arc when Eric's wife finally tracked him down, seeking to explain herself and reconcile their marriage.  Eric's wife was played Jewel Staite, who was fresh off that other brilliant-but-cancelled-thank-you-very-much-Fox TV series, Firefly.  Jaye is heartbroken because, thanks to the talking objects, it appears her latest mission is to help Eric reconcile with his wife.  But, since these inanimate objects are always so vague on their motivations, the arc - and the series - ends with the revelation that the plan was for Eric and his wife to get back together so they could sort things out and end their marriage once and for all.  The series winds up ending with Eric returning to Jaye and finally, officially asking her out on a date.

There's where I'm grateful for Fuller.  Because he saw the writing on the wall, he decided to wrap things up as neatly as he could so we could avoid that most hated thing in all of pop culture:  a TV series that ends on a cliffhanger. 

But when all is said and done, I found Wonderfalls to be a very funny and very clever show, and if you've never sought it out, I highly recommend you do.

Now if you'll excuse me, I watched the Wondefalls pilot as I was taking a break from watching the 4-hour epic that is The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King - Extended Edition.  I`m going to finish watching that, and write it up.

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