Is it any *ahem* wonder that Fox's Wonderfalls lasted for only a few episodes? Viewfinders, talking inanimate objects, tracheotomies, lesbians, kamikaze shots, and one surly protagonist do not a hit show make. Thankfully, as television's track record proves, "best" shows and "hit" shows don't always run in the same crowd. Wonderfalls never stood a chance at a second season because it made pretzels out of the normal rules of television (it lasted just four episodes on Fox in 2004), but those same twists are what made it one of the most unique shows of the last decade.
The dramedy was created by Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle) and Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me at the time, Pushing Daisies later on), two vets with unique visions that were often eccentric and frantic, and that's certainly evident in Wonderfalls. "Whimsy" is typically a spinning pinwheel in a field of daisies or cupcakes in the shape of old-fashioned bicycles with oversized front tires. And just on the other side of whimsy is where Wonderfalls stands, with one foot planted firmly in a garden of rainbow-eating unicorns and the other in a scary closet full of monsters, mental illness, and day-glo potables. For every nine steps it doodles through the dandelions, it takes a giant stomp on top of them, often traveling to a dark place that few quirky dramedies dare to visit. Wonderfalls is the television equivalent of a kitten with rabies.
The pilot, "Wax Lion," isn't perfect—few are—but it's damn close. The episode is outstanding in the way it conveys the beating, yearning heart of the series by the time it's over, not an easy task. The story darts and dashes with characters full of life, tracking zooms and "whooshes" and a whole lotta zingers before settling into an anti-procedural, a case-of-the-week in which the detective doesn't know she's working a case.
At the center is 24-year-old Jaye Tyler, one of television's greatest lost souls, played with all the facial dexterity of a silent-film actress by the wonderfully expressive Caroline Davhernas, a Canadian actress who is doing none of us Statesiders favors by keeping the bulk of her filmography confined to the Great White North (we'll just pretend Off the Map never happened). What makes Jaye and her voyage so fascinating is that she's reluctantly intertwined with these ideas of fate and destiny that classic storytelling is so hooked on, but the good things that happen because of her actions are limited to everyone else. She often looks like a dope while rearranging the universe to fit a best-possible-outcomes course, getting very little in return except for free shots and batted eyelashes from Eric the bartender. (Whatever happened to Tyron Leitso? And don't say Being Erica because that doesn't count.) Jaye's got the cosmic connection of the kid from Touch and the fortune of Mr. Bean.
The fun part, for me anyway, is how Jaye is pushed into her path. Talking inanimate animal toys? I love talking inanimate animal toys! We don't know if Jaye is a vessel for God, the corporeal tool of the misty apparition of Niagara Falls, or just some psycho hot chick inadvertently blessing the town with random permutations of the Butterfly Effect. The most interesting do-gooders are the ones who have no interest in being a do-gooder, and Jaye is an accidental philanthropist who can't stand the people she helps (although somewhere deep down there's a hint that the results do please her). But this curmudgeon comes in the packaging of a 24-year-old blue-eyed brunette graduate of Brown who's had enough idealism and is content with early onset middle-agedness. While everyone else wishes the universe would converge on them, Jaye wants to push it away, lock her arms, and scream "La la la la la la la la la" until the voices in her head stop.
But silly Jaye, they won't stop. Not as long as there are broken people who need fixing in the magical land of Niagara Falls or Fox cancels you. Jaye may be in her post-college meandering haze, going through life purposefully without purpose, but the other residents of Niagara Falls are all looking for something: a purse, a partner to give them sponge baths, or a lesbian lover. And it's up to Jaye to be the conduit that unites people and their happy endings (quite literally, in the Thai massage parlor sense, for the EPS delivery man). This is convincingly established by the time the pilot ends, as Jaye runs after the woman who flipped a coin into the fountain.
If the pilot establishes the series' tone, Episode 2 (according to the DVD set and the producers, not Fox's bungling of the correct episode order), "Pink Flamingoes," cements it and adds even more character to the series. The pilot focuses on Jaye's new role as world-fixer with several smaller problems to solve, but "Pink Flamingoes" focuses on one "case": her old high-school nemesis Gretchen. Forced into helping Gretchen through a mixture of guilt (over breaking her dad's leg) and fear (that more bad things will happen if she doesn't listen to the talking mounted fish in the bar and "get off her ass"), Jaye sets out to do what she doesn't know she's supposed to do, which is to save Gretchen from her "perfect" marriage. And in typical twisted Wonderfalls fashion, the wise Rooster on the back of Gretchen's hair clip has it right: The only way to free Gretchen was to "Destroy Gretchen." It's a thankless job, Jaye.
But the real kicker here is the way the episode ends. Even though a dashing young man in uniform approaches Gretchen and professes his love for her—the same kind of love she gave to her husband but that her husband didn't reciprocate—she doesn't leave with him. That would have been the cliché exit, the kind of crowd-pleaser that's supposed to work because we as an audience aren't concerned with anything that happens to these characters once the credits roll. Let us leave on a high point and falsely believe that the newly happy couple didn't succumb to the 50-percent divorce rate, that's normal television.
Instead, Wonderfalls gives its characters what they really need. And what Gretchen needed wasn't another man to latch onto, she needed to put on some heels, snap her fingers, and declare herself a single lady! You go girl! Compare that ending to Gretchen being whisked away by Man in Uniform with rose petals and slow jamz and fireworks, and you'll see that though Wonderfalls is clearly off its rocker; it's primarily concerned with grounding itself in finding what people really need instead of giving us more of the storybook endings that have been pounded into our brains. Most television series start off in reality before handing us some fairy-tale solution, but in its first two episodes Wonderfalls swam against that current by starting in hyper-reality and ending with a very believable human touch.
2004 was the year that Lost debuted. It was the year that Google went public. It was three years after the iPod and before the iPhone. It was the year the big decision on everyone's mind was how to move their digital lives from MySpace to some new site called Facebook. We weren't enamored with eccentricity or outsiders because these were the years of technological conformity and belonging and "live together die alone." 2004 was also the year that Wonderfalls slipped under the radar and into cult status. Wonderfalls was the pre-backlash to the self-importance of the era, a show so far ahead of its time that it feels pretty punctual right about now. Surrender to destiny and re-watch this gem!
Bonus Viewfinder Slides
– We'll settle into more of an episodic-review tone next week, but I always like to take more of a "first impression" angle when we're still early in a series. Wonderfalls is a charmer, and the pilot episode is one of my favorite pilots because of how much it's able to juggle. A good pilot, to me, really gets to the heart of what a show is about, and Wonderfalls is all about Jaye. There are also good foundations set for supporting characters, but they're all done through the eyes of Jaye.
– Not gonna lie: I hate the theme song. It's just a mess.
– Those of you who are watching along for the first time: What are your early impressions? Those of you who are watching again: How do you think Wonderfalls has held up? I think it's a pretty timeless show, but with the "me" generation slowly passing (we're beginning to come out of the reality-show haze and the online world is more focused on the social than the individual), it seems more fitting with the today's mood than that of the last decade.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom