Wonderfalls: The Complete Viewer Collection Review
Poor Tim Minear seems to be jinxed. Wonderfalls is the second television series in a row to which he was attached as showrunner that was cancelled by Fox before it had even run for a single season. His previous project, Joss Whedon's ambitious but ill-fated Firefly, was scrapped after 11 of its 15 produced episodes had aired, but Wonderfalls was even more unlucky, being struck down after a meagre 4 episodes, with a further 9 in the can and seemingly consigned to rot by Fox management. With all 13 produced episodes of Wonderfalls being released on DVD, this little-seen series is now getting a second chance, and while any hope of a second season would be nothing more than wishful thinking, this DVD set does feature a reasonably complete storyline that provides closure to many of the main plot arcs and can just about stand on its own as a complete package.
Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is probably best described as a slacker. Despite having graduated from university, she has chosen to abandon any thought of pursuing loftier goals, living in a trailer and working at a tourist gift shop in Niagara Falls (the "Wonderfalls" of the series' title). All of this causes her decidedly middle-class and well-to-do family no end of embarrassment, but nothing can prepare them (or her) for the turn that Jaye's life takes when various inanimate objects begin talking to her. While everyone around her passes this off as an "episode", Jaye begins to listen to the voices and finds that, by following their often-cryptic commands, she can change and improve the lives of others - although admittedly plenty of people will invariably get hurt in the process, including Jaye...
It's fairly easy to see why Wonderfalls was a disaster: there is nothing else quite like it on television, and if television has taught me anything, it's that mediocrity always triumphs. While imperfect, Wonderfalls is an ambitious and often extremely entertaining show, and although at the end of the day it may not have anything particularly groundbreaking to say, its quirky storylines and characters make it an incredibly endearing piece of work that really deserved to have been given a better chance. My initial reaction to the show was not positive: the first five minutes of the pilot episode led me to believe that I was about to have to slog through 10 hours' worth of what appeared to be little more than a Malcolm in the Middle clone (I know that smug, mincing series is popular, but personally I can't stand it). It quickly surprised me, however, and went on to do so again on numerous occasions throughout its run, so much so that I ended up watching all 13 episodes virtually back-to-back over a 3-day period.
As someone who generally finds the supposedly "hilarious" antics of most comedy series - American or otherwise - completely unfunny, I actually found myself laughing out loud several times per episode. Admittedly a lot of the humour is fairly unimaginative, often revolving around Jaye screaming PG-rated obscenities at befuddled onlookers, but the scripts are surprisingly witty and the actors are all game for making fools of themselves. None more so than Caroline Dhavernas, who in her role as Jaye exhibits more personality than many entire casts. Her performance and mannerisms are so atypical to those of most television actors that her reactions often caught me completely off-guard and I couldn't help being fascinated by her. Regardless of Dhavernas, Jaye is deeply interesting in her own right: a reluctant good samaritan who pretends not to care about anything (while in fact she does care, deeply) and isolates herself from the rest of the world to prevent herself from hurting others, and to prevent others from hurting her. I also got a hoot out of watching George Bush Sr. lookalike William Sadler as her staunchly Republican father, and Katie Finneran as her elder sister, a lawyer and closet lesbian whose political and social leanings don't exactly facilitate her "alternative lifestyle". The characters are, by and large, drawn in such a wacky manner that their behaviour makes Jaye's antics, themselves the subject of extreme consernation by all on sundry, look fairly harmless.
It would be unfair to claim that this series is a perfect creation, however. Despite the fact that it is a shame Fox pulled the plug on the show so quickly, I can't help but wonder for how long the formula would have worked. Each episode essentially revolves around Jaye receiving a cryptic order from one of her "muses", which makes little sense at the time but falls neatly into place during the last few minutes. While fun and wacky at first, it quickly becomes quite predictable, and some storylines are significantly weaker than others. In particular, the fourth episode, Wound-up Penguin, which revolves around a nun who suffers from a crisis of faith, ends up being sanctimonious in the extreme, with the show preaching to its audience in a manner that has not been seen since Superbook filled the heads of impressionable children with nonsense back in the early 80s. In the behind-the-scenes documentary, co-creator/writer Bryan Fuller admits to believing in a "higher power", and boy does he make sure we know this by the end of the episode. I personally don't have anything against people believing in whatever they choose, but when I am bludgeoned over the head with these beliefs in a manner that disrupts the flow of the story, then I can probably be forgiven for taking issue. It is extremely unfortunate that this was the last episode to air, because it is by far the weakest of the bunch and must have made for an incredibly unsatisfying swansong. Indeed, the series' allegories are hardly subtle, with Jaye occupying a Joan of Arc role (notice, even, the similarity of their names), and when one of the key metaphors - that the static nature of Jaye's trailer represents her life - is spelled out by a guest character as early as the third episode, you know you're in trouble.
I should probably also add that, while the vast majority of the cast perform well and portray characters whose relevance in the grand scheme of the show is clear, there is one exception: Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), Jaye's friend and by far the least interesting character. Firmly established as an agony aunt of sorts for Jaye, her main purpose, especially in the early episodes, is to be a confidante to whom Jaye can pour out all her pent-up emotions. Characters who are saddled with this sort of role rarely work, and the character's failings are in no way the fault of Tracie Thoms, who gives it as good a go as could be expected, but it is a thankless part and one that, I suspect, was simply added to add some ethnic diversity to the series (Mahandra is the only black person in a decidedly Caucasian ensemble). Nevertheless, I enjoyed Wonderfalls for the most part and found myself getting surprisingly caught up in the lives and activities of its oddball cast. While the show could probably have gone further had it been given a better chance, the 13 episodes present in this set are not to be sniffed at and should make for a suitably different viewing experience for anyone who is tired by the usual line-up of rote US "dramedies".
The show is spread across three discs and is presented in anamorphic 16x9. This is quite clearly not its intended aspect ratio, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the show was framed for 4x3, with the DVD showing a great deal of dead space on either side of the frame. The situation here is obviously somewhat similar to that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the show being shot in widescreen to make it HDTV-safe, but framed for a fullscreen aspect ratio. That said, regardless of framing errors, this is not a good transfer at all. It consistently looks soft and with some noticeable edge enhancement, as well as a great deal of artefacting - clearly the result of cramming four (or, in the case of the final disc, five) episodes and a number of bonus features on to each disc. Admittedly it is watchable enough and probably doesn't look much worse than it did when it was originally broadcast, but when compared to the transfers given to TV shows like Alias, this presentation looks downright embarrassing.
The sound isn't much better either. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, it is reasonably acceptable for the most part, although the dialogue often has a constrained, muffled quality. This varies on a sequence-by-sequence basis - for example, a number of the exterior scenes in the Crime Dog episode sound as if they were recorded on a beat-up dictaphone tape - and the dialogue is, for the most part, coherent, but there is nothing particularly impressive about this mix at all. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Commentaries - Six of the thirteen episodes include audio commentaries, all of them featuring creator/director Todd Holland and creator/writer Bryan Fuller, as well as actors Caroline Dhavernas (Jaye) and Katie Finneran (Sharon), with actor Scotch Ellis Loring (Dr. Ron and various muse voices) joining them for the Cocktail Bunny episode. The speakers alternate between providing technical information and recounting anecdotes of variable interest, and the tracks are fun enough to listen to, although especially during the last few episodes they begin to fall into the trap of simply saying "he/she was great" or "this scene was a lot of fun to shoot" over and over.
"Greetings from Wonderfalls" - This 22-minute documentary features contributions from many of the main players, including Caroline Dhavernas, Katie Finneran, Todd Holland, Bryan Fuller and Tim Minear, discussing various aspects of the show, including its concept and the ideas behind it, the casting, the process of shooting it, its cancellation and various miscellaneous anecdotes. It's all treated in a mainly lighthearted manner, and it's clear that the show was a lot of fun to work on. For some reason, this documentary is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, but without anamorphic enhancement.
Visual effects - This 3-minute featurette focuses on the effects animation created in order to make the various muses talk. It's fairly lightweight and doesn't reveal any groundbreaking information, but it's entertaining nonetheless.
Music video - During the "Greetings from Wonderfalls" documentary, Caroline Dhavernas says that she didn't want to do the music video, because she was afraid that she would "look like a dumbass". And it's true, she does indeed look like a dumbass in this video, which features her miming to the title theme (sung by Andy Partridge) against various kaleidoscope backgrounds. The result is so surreal that it looks more like a Chris Morris satire of the MTV style than the real thing. This feature on its own justifies the price tag of this set, since it is so outrageously awful that it really has to be seen to be believed.
Wonderfalls is unlikely to change your life, but I can think of no other television series quite like it, and I find it hard to imagine its quirky sense of humour not connecting in at least some way. An enjoyable little package that stands on its own without such pesky distractions as worrying about how much money you'll end up spending on subsequent seasons, this release gets a strong recommendation from me, and on DVD will hopefully gain the appreciation it deserves.
Wonderfalls: The Complete Viewer Collection is released on 1st February 2005.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:30:42