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Wondering Why ‘Wonderfalls’ Fell
When a good show plunges into early cancellation
A TV show can do everything right and still not survive a full season.
Wonderfalls had an excellent premise for episodic television. Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is an overeducated slacker who works in a Niagara Falls gift shop, lives in a trailer park, and generally tries to avoid the human race, particularly her overbearing family, who are all highly successful in their respective fields. But then the souvenirs start talking to Jaye, and they badger her into helping various people.
The series aired in 2004, when television was shifting to more serialized storytelling but still generally relied on the episodic structure. This was a happy-medium era, in which shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars would juggle season-long arcs and monster- or mystery-of-the-week episodes. That mix of long and short stories is my favorite television structure, and Wonderfalls was set to follow it.
In fact, one of the executive producers was Tim Minear, who wrote some of the best episodes of Angel as well as the short-lived Firefly. The series co-creator, Bryan Fuller, has developed a number of notable shows, including Pushing Daisies, which also ended too soon (at least that show lasted two seasons, but it could have pulled off three or four).
Setting Wonderfalls in a tourist destination expands the pool of people who might pass through Jaye’s life as the souvenirs (called “muses”) push her into helping a different person each week. And it’s not just the souvenirs—any item with a face can potentially start talking at any time, whether it’s a lawn flamingo or a cow head on a cream dispenser.
We don’t know why inanimate objects talk to her, and the possibilities are slowly teased out. We don’t need to know the exact origin, though. What’s most important is that it precipitates gradual character growth. Jaye’s experiences build on each other and chip away at her misanthropic exterior. To add some friction, the muses’ direction tends to be vague, and their pronouns lack specificity.
And then there’s ongoing relationship drama with Jaye’s bartender crush, Eric (Tyron Leitso), a technically married man whose wife cheated on him during their honeymoon. Meanwhile, Jaye doesn’t have the best relationship with her high-strung lawyer sister, Sharon (Katie Finneran), though she has a better one with her brother, Aaron (Lee Pace), an atheist theologian who’s greatly unsettled to learn that strange voices are speaking to his sister.
The premise could have carried a few seasons. The 13 episodes demonstrate plenty of variety, bringing Jaye into contact with a runaway nun, a shut-in neighbor, and the first woman to ride a barrel down Niagara Falls, among other colorful characters. All the while, the show maintains tension between Jaye’s desire to withdraw from the world and her need to get involved with said world. If anything, Wonderfalls would be more relevant now in the social media age.
Plus, the show is fun. It’s not afraid to get a little silly and have a good time, but it avoids going overboard.
Not only that, but all the ingredients of a good hour-long TV show are present in the correct proportions: comedy, heart, drama, and cleverness. They’re like the four humors of ancient medicine. Get the balance wrong, and the show grows ill, whether through excessive goofiness, nauseating schmaltz, aimless soap opera, or insufferable self-importance. Maintain the proper equilibrium, though, and you get something like Wonderfalls.
Any show can go off the rails after a great first season, and we’ll never know whether Wonderfalls would have succumbed to such a fate. It maintained a high quality during its short run, though. It deserved to continue, but it appears that poor marketing sank it. (I, unfortunately, never heard of the show until after it was already canceled.)
The season is worth tracking down if you can find it. DVD will probably be your best option.
In the meantime, you can enjoy the theme song on YouTube.
I put up an extra, web-only post this week, recycled from an old blog. Here’s what happens when a show does start strong but then winds up trying a bit too hard to keep things fresh in later seasons. (I’m picking on Lois & Clark with affection—it was one of my favorite shows when it first aired.)
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