Wonderfalls - The Complete Series (2004) Review

Wonderfalls - The Complete Series (2004)
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Warning: Many spoilers.
The 2003-2004 television season was one in which critics and fans expressed their growing outrage at the decay of standards in commercial television. On the one hand, the WB decided to cancel the critically acclaimed ANGEL despite an unprecedented fan effort to save the show. A growing stream of increasingly offensive reality shows made many wonder if there was any future for scripted television, or whether we were doomed to see shows like the widely condemned THE SWAN. But for many, the low point of the entire season was the cancellation by FOX of the extraordinary new show WONDERFALLS after only four episodes, despite a host of great reviews, many of them proclaiming it the finest new show of the year. More than this, it was as if FOX were determined for the show to fail, first placing it on Friday evenings (the worst night of the week for attracting viewers) for three weeks, before putting it on Thursday night opposite a host of the most popular shows on TV, therefore dooming it to low ratings. With the great reviews, one would have imagined that FOX would have found the show a new time slot and built an advertising and promotional campaign around the critics' ravings.
Luckily, WONDERFALLS is being released with the four original episodes and nine more that were completed but not released. The great news for those who saw those first four shows is that the next nine are even better. Indeed, if you were angry at the cancellation of the show based solely on those four episodes, you will go ballistic when you see how good these others are. The writers were obviously in defense mode from the first. One of the executive producers, Tim Minear, had been victimized the previous year when he served as executive producer of FIREFLY, which FOX similarly killed prematurely. This time, they assumed that the thirteen episodes might be all they got. As a result, WONDERFALLS is essentially a single self-contained story in thirteen parts. It could easily have led to a second season with new story lines, but the one season they did produce tells a single tale, with no major loose ends at all by the end of the final one.
As most who have heard of the show know, WONDERFALLS is the story of Jaye, a slacker living in Niagara Falls, NY (though most of the footage at the Falls is from the Canadian side) and working in a menial job in a souvenir gift shop. Her life is mundane and unpromising, when suddenly one day inanimate animals start talking to her. A lot of people who hear this aspect of the show are turned off, but trust me, it really won't be an issue for long for anyone who gives the show a chance. We never do learn why the animals talk to Jaye (though in one spectacular episode a bronze monkey, in response to her question of why they are all singling her out, tells her, "Because you listen"). In one episode near the end of the season there are hints that Jaye might actually be a spirit seer, and if so it is highly satirical that in American consumer society that she would be addressed by artificial, utterly fake animals instead of the real animals that Native American seers acknowledged as spirit guides.
The animals don't really give Jaye much choice in the matter of whether she is going to heed their commands. She learns very quickly that if she doesn't do their bidding, they will drive her crazy by such stratagems as singing endlessly "One Hundred Bottles of Beer On the Wall." She also learns that if she refuses to do their bidding, things can go very bad very quickly, and that if she does things can go miraculously right. For instance, she is commanded to do a number of things through consecutive episodes that apparently destroy a potential relationship with Eric, the young bartender who came to Niagara on his honeymoon, only to have his wife (played by FIREFLY alum Jewel Staite, as unlovable in this role as she was adorable as Kaylee in that show) cheat on him their first night there. Eric seems perfect for the prickly Jaye, but the animals don't seem to want to cooperate. I won't give away the end of the series, but I think the final episodes end about as perfectly as one could hope. After thirteen episodes in which Jaye has functioned as a pawn of fate, seeing her finally a little happy and content is a wonderful moment.
The cast is absolutely first rate, and by the end of the series all make a great contribution. Caroline Dhavernas is really fine as Jaye. She is not supposed to be a good or lovable or nice person. She definitely isn't a saint. As she puts it in one episode, in which she inadvertently saves a baby from injury, "I'm not a baby saver!" She ends up being a good person despite her own best efforts to the contrary. Tyron Leitso is enormously likable as Eric, who seems to be way too nice of a guy to be involved with a brat like Jaye. But the chemistry between Jaye and Eric is great, especially as their relationship gets enormously complicated by life (and inanimate animals) later in the season. At first I was alarmed that Jaye's family was going to play such a prominent role in the series, but all the performers were so exceptional that it ended up being one of the show's greatest assets. William Sandler as her doctor father, Diane Scarwid as her author mother, and Kate Finneran as her lawyer sister (all three highly successful in their jobs) were great and serve to emphasize how unsuccessful in life Jaye has been.. And I really liked Lee Pace as her brother Aaron, a doctoral student in religion who is the first to catch on that Jaye has an unusual relationship with the powers that be via fake animals (something he first suspects when he catches her talking to a cow coffee creamer). And Tracie Thomas is quite cute as Mahandra, Jaye's best friend and the surreptitious lover of Aaron (a fact only revealed to the other characters only in the final episode).
This is one of my favorite series of all time, and while I profoundly regret that FOX didn't give it a chance, I am grateful that the producers managed to tell a brilliant and compelling story. And I loved the setting in Niagara Falls. It was one of those rare shows where very nearly everything was perfect, except that it appeared on a network run by the mentally challenged. See this! I promise one of the most enchanting experiences of your viewing life.

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"From the producer of Angel and Firefly comes Wonderfalls with 9 never aired episodes. Although a recent graduate of Brown University, Jaye Tyler decides to ignore her degree, live in a trailer and work at a tourist gift shop in Niagara Falls called Wonderfalls--much to the despair of her well-to-do family. But Jaye’s aimless life takes a startling turn after a lion figurine begins talking to her. Her family calls it an "episode," but Jaye knows better.Fearing for her sanity, Jaye nevertheless starts doing exactly what an increasing number of inanimate objects tell her to do and is amazed when her outrageous actions begin changing people’s lives in unexpected ways. "

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