Bryan Fuller has a well-earned cult following from short-lived shows such as Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, and more recently enjoyed mainstream success with his modern-day Silence of the Lambs prequel, Hannibal. But not everyone has heard of Wonderfalls, a charming comedy gem that aired on FOX in 2004 and was sadly cancelled before it could reach the end of its first series.
Filled with Fuller’s characteristic quirkiness, dark humour, colourful visual style, and an endearing cast of characters, Wonderfalls is finally being given a DVD release in the UK and makes for the perfect addition to any Fuller fan’s collection or a unique treat for TV lovers.
What’s it about? Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas) is an enthusiastic member of generation Y: a cynical slacker whose university education at Brown and degree in philosophy has led her to a dead-end job in retail, a home in a trailer park, and a social life that consists of wearing out a stool at her local bar. But Jaye’s anti-social existence is shaken up when one of the figurines at Wonderfalls, the Niagara Falls tourist spot where she works, starts talking to her. Horrified she’s going crazy after years in her mind-numbing job, she does everything she can to avoid the advice of the little wax lion in question. But when it finally becomes unavoidable, she faces it head on with surprising results. Could it be she’s meant to help people?
But Jaye’s existential crises of fate, sanity, and morality don’t end there. Her socialite mother, closeted lesbian sister, theologian brother, barmaid best friend and unexpected romantic interest all come with their own thorny mix of problems that threaten to complicate Jaye’s life even further.
Verdict: Like most of Fuller’s work, the central conceit of the show sounds like it would stretch the suspension of disbelief to breaking point. But with his usual aplomb, he delivers a show of substance, style, and inimitable humour. Smart, witty, plot-driven and rich in character, the show brings a mix of whimsy and charm all Fuller fans are familiar with.
The central protagonist Jaye, played wonderfully by Caroline Dhavernas (Hannibal), is a refreshing heroine, being at once sweet and prickly, charming and cynical, full of heart and snarky to a fault. On paper, she has all the characteristics that should make a character unlikeable, but as she’s forced to tackle the world around her in new and unexpected ways, the viewer can’t help but find her witty and endearing. She has a lot in common with other Fuller creations, namely the darkly comic narrator of Dead Like Me, Georgia Lass. The narrative even succeeds at making her more morally ambiguous as the show unfolds without losing this fondness.
Creating engaging and likable characters is something Fuller and co. have always done well, by making the best use of the TV format to deeper explore relationships as the story progresses – and Wonderfalls is no exception, resulting in a brilliant cast of secondary characters. Stand-out performances come from Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies, The Hobbit), who turns Jaye’s brother from a side character into a lovable central figure in the story, and Katie Finneran (Frasier, You’ve Got Mail), whose portrayal of Jaye’s uptight lawyer sister is both sharply funny and very sweet.
The look of the show is colourful and quick, reminiscent of the style typified by Pushing Daisies, but grounded very much in the real world. There’s always as much dark comedy in Fuller’s worlds as there is eccentricity, and here you find a good spoonful of satire about the commercial side of the tourist industry in the set design and place names. And there are some in-jokes for eagle-eyed fans of Fuller’s more recent shows – figurine monkeys, anyone?
Extras: A short documentary, “Greetings from Wonderfalls”, is an enjoyable watch and explores some of the subtler elements of the show that fans might have missed, as well as introducing the cast members and talking about the distinctive music. A second short documentary, “Fantastic Visual Effects”, explores the making of the talking figurines.
Final Words: Wonderfalls had a few hit-and-miss episodes, but unlike most hasty cancellations, this was a show that found its voice, style, and audience from the get-go. A funny gem of a show that was sadly cancelled before its time.
Wonderfalls: The Complete Series is available on DVD on 28 October.