“I don’t have a choice. I’m a puppet. The universe sticks its hand up my butt, and if I don’t dance people get hurt.”
–Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas)
Fate and destiny–concepts that have fascinated mankind for years. They’re also the basis for quite possibly the most underrated, most unseen, and best “quirky” show of all time, Wonderfalls. So of course its fate was sealed.
Airing in the spring of 2004, Wonderfalls was created by Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller, and delivered one of the oddest premises ever (and remember, Fuller went on to create Pushing Daisies, so we’re in a definite “quirky” zone here already). The show centered around Jaye (played by Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas), a 20-something with an apparently useless college degree in Philosophy and a dead-end job at the Wonderfalls gift shop next to Niagara Falls–not your typical TV heroine or setting, especially for an hour-long comedy-drama.
But then Jaye starts hearing the voices….
And the voices are apparently coming from the inanimate animal objects around her, like a partially deformed Wax Lion, or a mounted fish on the wall, or pink yard flamingos. And they all speak to her in riddles, telling the acerbic Jaye things like “Get her words out” or “Give her life back”, with Jaye not knowing who or what the creatures might be referring to. And so the episodes detail her rather reluctant (and often misdirected) efforts to accomplish the wishes of these “muses”, and the effects of her actions on her family and friends. And her family and friends are very caring, but completely dysfunctional.
Parents Karen and Darrin (Diana Scarwid and William Sadler) are successful, loving, and only have Jaye’s best interests at heart… but now take all three of those things and multiply by a factor of four, and you see how pleasantly overbearing they can be. While their love is always there for Jaye, it manifests itself in too much concern for her welfare, as they feel that they haven’t quite succeeded in raising her properly, so they still try to do so, with sometimes hilarious and embarrassing results. Sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) is an immigration lawyer, trying to be the best, most successful daughter she can be, at least on the outside… and being the most lost, confused, and uncertain soul on the inside. Older brother Aaron (Lee Pace) is still living at home, working on a master’s degree in theology and not believing in anything, at least initially, but is also the only one who really starts to accept that the “voices” Jaye is hearing might actually be real. (By the way, notice the character names of the family members. Jaye really is the “odd one out”, even here….)
Jaye does have a couple of friends she can count on. Her best friend since her youth, Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), is a waitress at the local watering hole, The Barrel (in Niagara Falls, get it?). Usually also her partner in crime, so to speak, she’s the one who’s not afraid to tell Jaye when she’s wrong… and help her with her plans anyway. The bartender at The Barrel is Eric (Tyron Leitso), cute, funny, and potentially the right one for Jaye, if only she wasn’t apparently certifiable, and he wasn’t married/separated/still having a LOT of baggage with his ex (who shows up halfway through the series, for more complications).
If this was your life, maybe the voices would be the sane part of your existence, too….
And with the cars in place, we begin the roller coaster ride. Jaye’s reluctant journey through helping the causes of muses, fate, and destiny take us through the ups and downs. She can’t just ignore the voices. They won’t shut up, even when she’s trying to sleep. Since she’s the only one who hears them, even with others around, she’s caught up arguing with them, and then having to explain her apparently irrational conversations to her family and friends (or to the psychiatrist they send her to when they think she’s starting to really lose it). Jaye is never sure exactly what the animal muses are trying to convey to her, either, since their comments are rather open to interpretation. Her initial attempts usually turn out to be rather misguided, but strangely, things usually turn out right in the end, even if “right” is nothing like Jaye (or whoever she helps) were expecting. The muses cause her to accidentally run over her own father with a car, only to find out later that a potentially fatal blood clot was found that actually saved his life. She helps a down-on-her-luck girl find an identity, until it backfires when she steals Jaye’s, so now Jaye has to establish a different identity for her to steal. This is not your typical cop/medical drama or situation comedy, thankfully.
Which, as I said, means that all good things come to a (premature) end. Wonderfalls was originally scheduled for the Fall of 2003, by FOX, on Fridays at 9. But this was the year after Buffy: The Vampire Slayer ended, and many networks were looking for the next “strong female fantasy show”. This meant that, on the other networks that fall season, there were the premieres of Tru Calling and Joan of Arcadia. Joan was especially a problem, because it was a highly promoted show about a girl who heard “voices” from God. Confusion from the press started immediately, so FOX made the correct decision to save Wonderfalls until midseason, in the hope that Joan of Arcadia might fail early and leave the field open for them. Joan, however, went for a full season, and Wonderfalls, despite critical acclaim and tentative plans for rolling out the show using American Idol as a launching pad, was running into problems of its own:
“We were the golden boys and everything was fantastic and we were in episode 7, and a rough cut of episode 5 (which had a very significant lesbian B-story) was sent to a higher-ups office, and he said ‘no fucking way’. And the next day no one was talking to us and there was a time when we weren’t even going to air. We really knew when we went into the marketing meeting and first they were telling us how they were going to market it, and then they were telling us how they were not.
That’s when we decided that we needed to make it a miniseries because we wouldn’t have more than 13 episodes and we made those 13 episodes sing. We had a beginning, middle, and end.”
–creator Bryan Fuller
So, destiny and fate. We now had a miniseries designed with a specific endpoint (which, if it had somehow been successful, could still have gone on to further seasons) and all that could be done was to put it out there and see the reaction. The first episode aired on a Friday night in March, 2004, and was repeated the next week on a Thursday night… and got better ratings for the Thursday airing. Immediately, FOX changed the airtime for the show to Thursdays, but didn’t really let anyone know about the change, meaning no one followed the show, and the ratings tanked. It also didn’t help that the first Thursday repeat was against a previously broadcast CSI, and the following episodes were against new episodes during a Sweeps Month, which is when networks usually run all their “special” programming and competition is the strongest. Oh, and CSI was the #1 show on television at the time. You had a better chance going over Niagara Falls in a barrel yourself than Wonderfalls had of surviving.
This is a show about fate. Destiny. About things that were meant to be. So, even though its life on network television was short-lived, the show did eventually find an audience. There was, of course, a fan campaign to save the show, consisting of “Greetings from Wonderfalls” postcards (like you might find in, perhaps, a certain cheesy souvenir shop somewhere near Niagara Falls). Noting the critical acclaim the show had received (the San Francisco Chronicle called it “unquestionably the best new drama series of the 2003-2004 season”), the Museum of Television and Radio held a two-day screening of the entire 13 episodes the next January. And although the show finally was aired in its entirety later that summer on the little-seen cable network Logo, the biggest hope for the majority of fans at that time was a DVD release. Fortunately, FOX figured they could make some money on a show they’d already paid to produce, so a DVD set was released in early 2005. It’s worth owning. I mean it. Apparently 25,000 other people thought so, because it’s sold at least that many.
Of course, if you can’t (or won’t) spend your money on worthwhile DVDs with extras, you can likely find the episodes on YouTube, but don’t expect me to link to them here, even though they’re worth watching… but I will link to the alternate version of the pilot there, since it’s not available on the DVD, with different actors playing the parts of Mahandra and Aaron (they were unable to continue when the show went to series).
CAROLINE DHAVERNAS (Jaye) has had a two-pronged career, primarily in Canada, where her fluency in both French and English has made her able to perform in films of both languages, and also dub her own voice for translations of various projects. While much of her work has been in Canadian films, she has recently been seen in HBO’s The Pacific, and has been cast as the lead in ABC’s upcoming series Off the Map.
DIANA SCARWID (Karen) has been nominated for both an Oscar and an Emmy (for Inside Moves and Truman, respectively), and is also known for her role in the notorious film version of Mommie Dearest, playing the abused daughter of screen legend Joan Crawford. She was also seen as a guest star in 4 episodes of Pushing Daisies and a pivotal role in Heroes (thank you, Bryan Fuller).
WILLIAM SADLER (Darrin) has had many and varied roles, including everything from the Grim Reaper in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey to appearing in the drama The Shawshank Redemption. Genre fans know him as the sinister Luther Sloan, head of the mysterious Section 31 on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and as the Sheriff on Roswell. He continues to appear in many guest roles in TV and film.
KATIE FINNERAN (Sharon) believed in Wonderfalls so much that she left all of her belongings in boxes in Toronto, sure that she’d be coming back to film season 2. Alas, it was not to be. Fortunately, she was an accomplished stage actress, having won a Tony award for the comedy Noises Off, and was most recently featured in the revival of Promises, Promises on Broadway.
LEE PACE (Aaron) is best known for his role as the piemaker Ned in Bryan Fuller’s slightly more successful show Pushing Daisies, where he has the ability to bring people back from the dead. Unfortunately, that ability doesn’t work on television shows themselves, as neither Pushing Daisies nor Wonderfalls survived.
TRACIE THOMS (Mahandra) has been a regular on the CBS series Cold Case, and also was featured in the film version of the musical RENT. As a result of the film, she reprised her role in the final cast performances of RENT on Broadway. She was also seen as one of the wild women in the cult favorite Death Proof, which was released as part of the movie Grindhouse.
Canadian actor TYRON LEITSO (Eric) has appeared in a number of Vancouver based productions, including The X-Files and Millennium. He is currently on the Canadian series Being Erica, playing, of course, the boyfriend of the lead.
Co-Creator TODD HOLLAND has won numerous Emmy awards for his directing work, on such shows as The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm in the Middle, as well as 30 Rock. He also directed 5 of the 13 episodes of Wonderfalls, including the pilot episode.
Co-Creator BRYAN FULLER is one of this blog’s heroes (pun intended), having created and worked on some of the best “quirky” shows ever, including writing over 20 episodes on the various Star Trek franchises, and creating/producing Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies. He also was a consulting producer for a time on Heroes (explaining the pun).
Our parting shot comes from Tim Minear, an executive producer/writer on the series, who has also worked on a number of Joss Whedon shows like Firefly and Angel. He had this to say to the fans about why the show, and the entire 13 episode “miniseries”, is worthwhile:
“…it adds up to something. Look, I’ve seen them all. The story arc of it really starts heating up around episode 6. So do stick with us for the first 13 episodes. If for no other reason, when you see the twenty miracles that Caroline Dhavernas’ face performs in the last shot of episode 13, you’ll be glad you stayed.
And don’t fret about network plug-pulling. I have trod this road before and I’ve cleared the way of minefields for you. I can promise that if we only ever get to 13, it’ll be worth it and you won’t feel cheated.
Sorry, Mr. Minear. I do feel cheated, but not just because FOX pulled the show even before episode 6. I just wish there was more Wonderfalls.
The muses still speak, you just have to listen….
4 aired episodes — 9 unaired episodes (available on DVD)
First aired episode: March 12, 2004
Last aired episode: April 1, 2004 (How appropriate….)
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central?: no, but the first episode was close, at 9/8.
Odd trivia: A guest character from the unaired episode “Muffin Buffalo” actually appeared in an episode of Pushing Daisies in the second season, so the two shows apparently share a universe together. The world is a strange place, especially on television. Also, minor recurring characters are played by genre favorites Neil Grayston (now on Eureka), Jewel Staite (from Firefly and Stargate: Atlantis), and Kari Matchett (Invasion and Leverage).
As always, comments are appreciated.
P.S. I’m thinking of starting to put up some “preview” posts on Monday nights, just to hint a bit at what’s going to be covered that Friday. Think of them as “network promos”, and see if you can guess what show I’m going to do without me giving it away completely. Enjoy!