Saturday, June 18


This Lion is Defective

The title sequence of Wonderfalls, the short-lived Fox dramedy-cum-cult-hit that got canned back in fall of 2004, promises a warm, whimsical and wonderful world ahead, with bright translucent colors like jagged prisms of rock candy refracting the sun and the kitschy road-side-attraction charm of its Niagara setting. It looks invitingly familiar, nostalgic even, and yet strangely shiny and new. It’s exotic and domestic at once, like the show’s heroine, played by Quebecois actress Caroline Dhavernas, with her precisely sloppy slacker garb, blue eyes and subtle lip-biting smile.

It’s also a title sequence that clearly does not belong to the TV show that follows.

What comes instead is a tangled garden railway train-wreck of just-for-laughs angst that ratchets between schmaltz, sarcasm and sunny twentysomething cynicism both naïvely comic and disturbing. In spite of that I haven’t been able to get the show’s theme song out of my head for a week and have conceived a mad passion for the touristy 3-D viewfinders that are a running leitmotif in the show’s trinket-shop locale.

We’re bobbing along in our barrel.
Some of us tip right over the edge.
But there's one thing really mystifying
Got me laughing, now it’s got me crying
All my life I will be death defying
’Til I know…

It’d help if the character Caroline plays smiled more. Or had a reason to.

The thirteen episodes recently released to DVD, five of which were aired on Fox, revolve around Jaye Tyler, 26, a slacker graduate of Brown’s philosophy program. She’s found herself stuck selling touristy knickknacks for the plasticky Wonderfalls Emporium at Niagra Falls. Apparently, in real life summer jobs at the falls are coveted ones and go to kids of well-to-do families, not quite the case here.

Jaye’s fallen about as far as she can go: her boss is a high-school mouth-breather she trained and who got promoted over her head, her estranged family are members of that psychotically normal underclass that TV would have us believe make up the whole of upper-crust suburbia (I’ve never met any myself), and she lives in a trailer that, while resembling Jeannie’s bottle on the inside, is in fact slightly smaller. Her main idea of recreation seems to involve beer, a little bit unsettling because Dhavernas looks like she could still play a high schooler without turning a hair.

Then she falls a bit farther: As she says, I think the universe is conspiring against me. She starts hearing voices. Things which don’t have vocal chords—like wind-up toy penguins, chicken hair clips and, most notoriously, a defective wax lion that came out of a Mold-O-Rama machine with a smooshed face—are starting to talk to her. Even worse, she’s starting to listen. She’s become fate’s sock puppet, as her muses tell her to do the oddest and most minute things from which strange and wonderful results blossom. Unexpectedly, and sometimes in stark contrast to what she’s trying to do.

This is where things start getting tricky, and surprisingly unsatisfying. While there is lots of cool stuff here—talking animals, viewfinders, sardonic jokes, a bar called The Barrel—the sum is much less its component parts.

Some have called it Touched by an Angel on acid, which misses the point on several levels, and also overrates both shows ever-so-slightly. The show came out shortly after Joan of Arcadia did, and the comparisons are inevitable, except for the strange void that looms over Jaye and company’s myopic (yet unchallenged) attempts to explain away what’s going on around her as her unconscious or something more tiresomely pantheistic.

Let’s consider some of the things Jaye’s asked to do during the thirteen episodes that got filmed. She’s asked to break someone’s tail light, refuse a customer’s discount, get off her ass, get someone’s words out, “bring her to him,” and several other either cryptic or faintly criminal acts. The results, however, unite a girl and her absentee father, restore a cheese-obsessed nun to the Faith, prevent a mugging, and usually earn her very little in the way of warm fuzzies. It’s more random chance than divine Providence, as if God was undercutting Himself to get the mildly bad circumstances to bring good out of, an idea which seems too theologically complex, too freighted with questions of predestination, free will, life, the universe and everything, to occur to the show’s creators.

On the other hand, even though I wouldn’t recommend it to a friend, the show has its moments. Caroline’s numerous startled looks, jaw drops and registrations of surprise—like Sandra Bullock, she manages to have a gift for physical, almost rubber-faced comedy—are spectacularly hilarious without robbing her of an ounce of her beauty.

“Who made you guess?”
“Nobody— the proverbial

The show’s creators, Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, another pop-culture-cum-mythology reappraisal which I have not seen) and Tom Holland (Malcom in the Middle) are to be applauded for avoiding too much mushy sentimentality—an understatement, given the ubiquity of lines like You’re twenty-four— ‘troubled teen’ is no longer flattering on you—but in the process there’s very little left to love, and when they do go for the heart, it seems tacked on and perfunctory, the exact sort of stuff they seem to avoid religiously throughout the show. Jaye starts to soften a little as the show progresses, but the soufflé never rises enough for the show’s volatile smorgasborg of moods to develop the consistent—though not uniform—texture to pull it off.

The writers are also to be applauded for taking a stab at some local color, so rare at present. Northern Exposure, which the school of quirky dramedy must always look back to, remains almost heroic in that regard. It was filmed on-site—in the Pacific Northwest, sure—and had the convincing Hopperesque lived-in look one would expect in a place like Cicely, Alaska. It was clearly a someplace, even if faintly fictional. Wonderfalls’ Niagara is a clever mix of trick photography, stock footage and computer graphics that even had me fooled, though as the short-lived series progresses, the show’s innovative graphic style with its dream sequences, bright colors, talking wax lions bought for a quarter, and brilliantly-thought-out scene-shifts like clicks between viewfinder slides, seems to get bored with itself and gradually begin to give up in favor of fashionably murky set-pieces.

I wonder, wonder, why the wonder falls.
I wonder why the wonder falls on me.
I wonder, wonder, why the wonder falls
With everything I touch and hear and see.

So much of the show feels like there are vast stretches mark with yellow sticky notes entitled “do more research,” and “develop idea further” which never got followed up on. While we’re graced with bon mots like Jaye’s high school nemesis and Hebrew-by-marriage informing her that she is “a Christmas and Easter Jew,” the show falls so lazily into strangely grey stereotypes, a couple of coarse jokes, and surprisingly un-intellectual lapses of creativity. It feels like a world slapped together by bright high-schoolers still unfamiliar with things mythic and profound, with the depths of human emotion and spiritual experience. The show will come so close to something almost perfect and then choke.

ERIC: What’s the universe plotting?
JAYE: Couldn't tell you. Vanna hasn’t turned over enough letters yet.

Like the plastic figurine with the smooshed-in face that becomes Jaye’s unasked-for spirit animal, the show is a defective lion, bold, startling, a little lazy sometimes, but a lion all the same. And defective all the same. One episode, which deals with a visiting nun with a crisis of faith, manages to be, if not sympathetic, then surprisingly neutral on the subject of God. It even has Sister—who is shown as surprisingly young for a TV nun—soliloquize on how the glory of the world, and particularly her love of cheese—tells of God’s existence. The priest who pursues her to talk her back into the convent is, in the end, a pretty decent guy, though paper-thin. That’s not enough to save the episode, which ends on a rather unrewarding high note, but not after an embarassingly mis-managed and under-researched exorcism on Jaye, conducted not by the priest, who finds the idea dangerous and stupid, but by the nun in a bid to wake up her faith.

It becomes increasingly apparent that not only have the folks who cooked this thing up never met a really religious person, but on top of that, can’t even get the conventional stereotype down properly. It’s like anthropologists from Mars wrote it, and not very good ones, either.

ERIC: I’m almost dumb enough to start something on the rebound—what do you say?
JAYE: Sweet of you to offer but—I may be clinically insane. You might want to hold out for someone a little more stable.
ERIC: I don't think that would be as interesting.

There’s too many moving parts waving around, and a lot more screwed on to the plot that appears like a cargo cult object to have no purpose at all. Take Jaye’s family. You could slice them out of the show completely and actually made the show stronger. Like so many of the show’s characters what little we know about them is semaphored out and left hanging. Dad, Republican doctor—and yet nobody ever argues politics; Mom—delicately mean WASP homemaker, and nobody ever wonders why she’s mean; Sister—whiny lawyer—and no lawyer jokes or, for that matter, exciting court battles; Brother—comparative religions grad student, and yet he never talks about Buddhism or Baptists. They’re not only stereotypes, they’re stick-figure stereotypes. You can’t even dislike them because they’re so vaguely sketched in.

SHARON: You tell people we’re not related.
It was just that one time.
SHARON: It was Grandpa’s wake.

The guest stars aren’t much better. Sometimes they have a certain arbitrary quirkiness to them, like Bianca called“Binky,” a stuttering quasi-stalker journalist for the fictive magazine Today’s America, or the angry Texan hausfrau who Jaye ends up helping in the pilot episode, but they just seem like so much filler, and take away valuable time that might have been used to see the main characters with one another and finally start developing properly.

Your home is a trailer. Don’t you see the beautiful poetry in that? It’s a thing that’s been designed to go someplace, and yet the hitch isn’t hooked up to anything. So it just sits here, never living up to its potential… but never in any danger of breaking down either.

Of course, maybe that’s the world Jaye lives in. (And who names a gal Jaye anyway?) One episode, “Karma Chameleon,” named after the stuffed puppet that keeps bugging Jaye to get a stuttering girl’s “words out,” touches, however briefly, on the emptiness of her Gen-Y world. In it, she ends up becoming the focus of an anonymous profile by Binky the Journalist who’s poking into what makes Gen Y tick and ends up writing Binky’s article herself.

You have really managed to create a stressless expectation-free zone for yourself.

It skates over it matter-of-factly, but Jaye makes it very clear she lives the way she does to cut herself off from just about everyone. She wants a comfort zone, and so that’s why she has so few friends besides a standard issue Hollywood Minority Sidekick and a Handsome Bartender, is stuck behind a cash-register at a job where she doesn’t have to use her brain too much, and lives in Jeannie’s bottle.

Uh…what was the question?

Perhaps this is why, in spite of Jaye’s peculiar calling as an instrument of the Fates, is a sense of mythic purpose, a sense of the invisible realities underlying her kitsch universe. The jarring contrast between her ordinary world and the call she seems to have been given has a marvelous potential: God, or Something anyway, is always there no matter how mindless your own personal cosmos may be. The show just seems to not be interested in it—I’m not sure it’s even a problem to the show’s writers are conscious of. Girl talks to objects, they talk back, startled looks ensue, someone gets helped, some clever witticisms, and it’s a wrap.

If only it had been written by Catholic nerds.

In part, this deficit is because Jaye has no guide of her own. There’s a certain formula, as well-defined as a classical French drama by Racine or a Greek tragedy, about how a show like this works. The supernatural of some stripe bleeds into everyday life. Often it’s just one person who can see it, whether her name is Jaye, Buffy, Joan of Arc or Arcadia. It may be a whole town named Cicely. But they need a guide—someone to explain, but not choke the life out of what’s going on around them. Sometimes, as with Northern Exposure’s Chris-in-the-Morning, he may be just as confused as the rest of us, but at least he knows there’s something odd and wonderful in the air. For a show whose characters include a philosophy major and a scholarship-winning student of comparative religion, there’s a God-shaped hole in the air over Niagara Falls and nobody is talk about it or even see it.

Don’t you ever think about this life
And how strange it all can seem?
Only way to find the answers out
Is to wake up from its golden dream.
See, I told you I was right about the wonder-wonder-wonder-wonder…
I've got to find out from where the wonder falls.

It’s a problematic show, and its mistakes are, at the very least, interesting ones, unintentionally pointing at the ghosts that haunt today’s America. Maybe it could have ironed itself out in a couple of seasons, or maybe not. Probably not.

At the close of “Karma Chameleon,” Binky’s article—actually written by Jaye and describing her life to a tee—makes the front page, and we find Jaye and her family reading around their dinner-table, a scene full of rich darks and warm wood paneling. And the mother, for once sympathetic, reads it aloud:
Like the falls of Niagara that rage at the center of her little town, some powerful force forever threatens to sweep [Jaye] into roiling chaos. It is a force against which she struggles. A power she cannot name. Whether it is the undertow of contemporary life, or something more ancient, “life as it has alway been,” [Jaye] will continue to struggle, to thrash and fight. Yet in her most personal unguarded moments she will speak of a calm pool, a place where the waters become still and the chaos abates. A place where a father’s wisdom, a mothers compassion, a brother’s protection, and a sister, 35, all combine to show [Jaye] she is not alone.
Like the title sequence, I think that passage must have strayed from another, quite wonderful, and very poignant show. I hope that one lasts longer than five episodes.

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