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Friday, January 22, 2021

The Best TV Series of My Life: Wonderfalls (2004)

It's practically a given that if you ever refer to a Bryan Fuller television series, you inevitably come to a point where you say, "If only it hadn't been canceled so soon!"

Such was the fate of Dead Like Me (2003 - 04), Pushing Daisies (2007 - 09), and Hannibal (2013 - 15). All of them make my list, and will be reviewed in due course. We can argue all the live-long day, I suppose, as to why Fuller's shows never seem to run a long time. My own take on why, being a big fan of everything he does, is that he refuses to pander to his audience. He's quirky and original, another big turn-off to the herd, who are only interested in watching shit they've watched before, regardless of "interesting" iteration, and who have no interest in evolving or growing, especially intellectually. Screw thinking!

Wonderfalls, which didn't even make it a full season, appears at first glance to be little more than a quirky comedy, one that features a 24-year-old retail clerk named Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas). She's got a philosophy degree from Brown University (an Ivy League school not easy to get admitted into, suggesting she's very intelligent--another turn-off to far too many [you can't have as lead characters smart women, after all]), but works at a gift shop in Buffalo, New York, at a mall overlooking Niagara Falls. Her snarky attitude finds her laboring at the pleasure of the assistant manager just barely out of high school. She lives in a fifth-wheel in a trailer park, and frequents the local bar called The Barrel, where she drinks lots of beer and somewhat bitterly muses on her situation. Her best friend, Mahandra, waitresses there; and recently a new bartender has gotten her attention by the name of Eric, who caught his wife having sex with the bellhop on their honeymoon and is struggling with heartbreak and uncertainty over what he needs to do next with his life.

One day, while schlepping another shift, a defective lion from a toy dispenser speaks to her. And here we go with what at first blush seems to be the central conflict of the series: that inanimate toys and plushies (they all have faces) talk to her, giving her vague orders to do things, which, after much consternation and sometimes outright refusing to follow through, ends up resulting in something good happening for someone, many times having a domino effect that benefits many.

Jaye thinks she's going crazy; and in fact, as I understand it, had the series gone on, the story arc would have had her in the mental hospital for at least part of it. That doesn't happen; but Jaye still struggles to keep her wits about her, which she isn't sure she has anymore.

She's the black sheep of her family, all of whom have names that rhyme with each other: father Darrin, mother Karen, sister Sharon, and brother Aaron. All are successful; she isn't. Her schoolmates from high school are serving on city councils and becoming astronauts; she is ringing up angry, impatient tourists at a gift shop. Her classmates are getting married and having children; she isn't interested in either--at least given the poor crop of suitable mates available. You quickly come to realize how many hidden depths there are to her story, and to the overarching story itself.

It is, for one, a story about faith, about what it means to have it and act on it, even when it seems absurd to do so. The plushies and the like speak to her. When, in a manic rage new the series' end, she asks one of them why they do, it answers: "Because you listen." She's alone in this, which suggests just how faithless everybody else really is, and which plays out in consequences, often sad, sometimes even tragic, in their daily lives. Jaye isn't a prophet: she's a retail clerk! But that only highlights the idiocy of the hierarchy of American vocational life--that some are more important than others, that some count more, that some matter more. It's a sharp, even brutal commentary that I strongly believe few catch.

Another depth is Jaye's vocational life. She serves as a harbinger for what was to become quite nasty in terms of career and lifestyle for so many millions after 2004, relegated to working retail instead of something better, something in line with a broader, more meaningful, more relevant career. She comes off as both solipsistic and nihilistic at times, but then you see exactly why such is so. The system is rigged. It's a giant cog machine without meaning, without life, without joy. It grinds you down and spits you out; it indebts you to the point of slavery; it is concerned only about enriching those at the top; it has no need for intellect or courage or anything approaching genuine egalitarian innovation and caring. All of this is unstated during the series, but undergirds all of it.

Jaye is 24 in this story. When the series premiered, I was 42. I am either a "Boomer" or a "Gen Y-er," depending on the demographer you talk to. I was a real-life canary in the coal mine for Jaye's fictional circumstances years later. I had to work retail despite a bachelor's degree, just like she does. She sees no future for herself; I didn't either. She questions the sanity of it all; I do even today. Fuller weaves all of these heavy ideas in a light way, but they are what give the story arc its meat, even over her challenges with inanimate toys and the like ordering her about.

Treat yourself and watch the first episode. I think you'll end up watching the rest of the series if you do.