Of the long list of TV shows that were cancelled before they had run their course, there are those which have gained mythic status. A legendary few that have attracted a fan base so furiously loyal that the show continues to enjoy an active life post-cancellation. I’m talking about shows like Firefly, Freaks and Geeks, and Twin Peaks, that are all still regularly watched by huge numbers of people every year.
Wonderfalls may well be the latest to count itself among that privileged few. Since its cancellation only 4 episodes into its first season in 2004, an increasing number of fans have campaigned to see it released on DVD. Nearly a decade on this wish has been granted, and justifiably so for it really is an absolute joy.
Set in and around the Niagra Falls area, the show follows Jaye Tyler, a slacker who works a dead end job in the eponymous gift-shop and lives in a trailer park. Her life consists of avoiding her high-achieving family, drinking at the local bar with her best friend Mahandra, and generally trying to get doing as little as possible.
However, her life changes forever when the inanimate toy animals that she sells for a living suddenly begin to speak to her. The strange messages she receives set chains of events into motion, leading Jaye (along with Mahandra and the newly acquainted heart-throb bartender Eric) on a series of altruistic adventures.
Jaye Tyler is the quintessential 20-something member of generation Y; a disaffected, over-educated, under-achieving nobody. She is a staple character that you will have seen before – an intelligent and yet apathetic bitch who remains likable and largely sympathetic throughout. The inherent conflicts of her character and the relationships she harbors are naturally fairly foreseeable.
Episode 1 sets everything up so obviously: the mess of family relationships and the awful job (these are obstacles to overcome), the love interest barman (the will she/won’t she throughline) & c & c. As such Wonderfalls has the potential to be so run-of-the-mill and predictable, and yet it still manages to be funny, surprising and even occasionally quite subversive. This is partly down to the magic realist element of the animals who speak in riddles (a deliciously surreal magcuffin), but it also down to some simply great writing.
Though Wonderfalls kind of has the aesthetic of a kid’s TV show there’s this wonderfully mean streak in the script that adultifies it (episode 4, for example, boasts dialogical references to free basing, oral sex, prostitution, murder, and existential religious doubt). It’s also grounded and kept interesting by constant references to the possibility that Jaye might be clinically insane (she is, after all, hearing inanimate objects talking to her and acting on these messages).
One interesting (and excellently well written) change of dynamic is that, during the first few episodes you’re willing Jaye to follow the animals’ commands, whereas she is initially reluctant. But once it becomes apparent that their commands always eventually lead to a
happy ending, the animals abruptly begin positing hard self–sacrificial instructions that Jaye begrudgingly resigns herself to following. At this point you start willing Jaye to ignore these messages, to carve her own path and break free. This ensures that the show remains compelling throughout the series.
Of course, the shows main point of interest are the talking animals, which act as a kind of constant ‘deus ex machina’ feeding her all she needs (albeit in enigmatic riddles) to fix everything. Everything satisfyingly ties up at the end of every episode and, despite the fact that somehow not sickeningly so.Besides the script, the show excels in other areas. The cast are fantastic and there are a number of enjoyably recognisable guest stars (Kari Matchett, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Beth Grant). There is also a real filmic feel to the production style, particularly the cinematographywhich is consciously cinematic (comparable to the work of Edgar Wright). The show is full of whip pans and Raising Arizona style tracking shots. There are plenty of nice little visual flourishes and metaphoric manifestations, like the moment in which Eric realises he’s fallen for Jaye and a crash zoom into his eye reveals fireworks cascading around his retinas.it feels like the lowest common dominator of entertainment, I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. It’s crowd-pleasing to the max; but
Yes, it’s packed to the brim with sentimentality, but who doesn’t want a bit of schmaltz every now and then. But for a couple of dud episodes, the show is a real delight, and one that was well worth unearthing. Thank God for crazily loyal fans.