Fans of the fantastical have alternately enjoyed and endured a tricky relationship with television through the years. The inherently long-form nature of small screen storytelling ensures that the format rarely fails to provide a bond between creator and audience, and while the goggle-box has enjoyed plenty of genre success stories (Lost, The Walking Dead and the Battlestar Galactica redux being just three recent examples), the landscape is littered with beloved broadcasts wrenched from our screens far too soon. Star Trek may have survived a cancellation to become the multi medium-straddling franchise behemoth we’ve come to know and love, but the list of short but sensational shows mourned by DragonDark could fill the dead sea scrolls. Brimstone, American Gothic, Dark Skies, The Dresden Files, Carnivale, Jericho … all unceremoniously cancelled by unscrupulous suits.
Look, we all lament the loss of Firefly, it’s taken as read.
If one man can lay claim to enjoying a more wretched run to luck than Joss Whedon, however, it’s uber-producer Bryan Fuller. The Washington whizkid – and undisputed legend of cult genre television – sprinkled magic dust over the astounding first season of Heroes and is currently scaring up a storm with Hannibal, but it’s been a rocky road for Fuller since he made his breakthrough by inking episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Passion project Dead Like Me, a jet-black comedy that told the tale of a teenage grim reaper, lasted just 23 episodes (many of which had no involvement from Fuller, who walked away from the show when creative interference from the Showtime network became too much to bear), while forensic fairy tale fantasy Pushing Daisies, originally intended as a spin-off, fared little better; the show was critically adored, but cancelled after just two seasons and 22 episodes. Meanwhile Mockingbird Lane, an attempted reboot of the beloved Munsters franchise, failed to make it past the pilot stage.
Here at DragonDark, however, Fuller’s masterpiece will always be Wonderfalls, the Niagara Falls-set comedy drama of 2004 shamefully cancelled by Fox after just a handful of episodes had aired. The show was a critical smash, but has failed to find the audience it deserves in the UK thanks to a solitary run on Sky TV and no home video release. Finally, Wonderfalls will enjoy a status beyond our smug little secret – the complete show is hitting Region 2 DVD on Monday October 28th, courtesy of kings of cult entertainment Medium Rare, as a 3-disc box set.
A gloriously imaginative hybrid of Quantum Leap, Touched by an Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonderfalls was the story of Jaye Tyler, an Ivy League-educated slacker seeking her place in the world while shirking as much responsibility and human contact as possible. Hiding from her overachieving family by living in a trailer park and working in a gift shop, Jaye is largely successful in this mission – until the inanimate objects sold in the aforementioned shop start to talk to her. These unwelcome intrusions urge her to help strangers – usually in an elaborate manner strewn with misunderstandings, and always to the detriment of Jaye’s innate reluctance to complicate her quiet life – and leave our intrepid heroine questioning her sanity, her place in the world, and who she really is.
As a high concept it’s a doozy (if the talking Barrel Bear doesn’t melt your heart you have no soul), and the delivery is never less than masterful. Somehow, everything about the show just works. The theme tune, I Wonder Why the Wonder Falls, by former XTC six-stringer Andy Partridge, is effortlessly hummable. The scripts are hilarious, sparky and rapier-sharp, without resorting to whip-smart spite or hipster condescension. The sets are rich and varied, from the picturesque landscape shots of Niagara Falls to the primary-colour dominated interiors of the Wonderfalls store, via the countless exteriors such as the trailer park, a Native American reservation, the Canadian border, and many, many trips to the police station for our spikey heroine. Remarkably for a show with such a short shelf life, the thirteen episodes that make up this one and only season form a hugely satisfactory arc; where most shows of Wonderfalls’ calibre find their feet through a host of early ‘incident of the week’ episodes, Fuller crafts a complex and interesting story packed with character development and rug-pulling subversions of expectation.
It’s these characters that are at the heart of the show’s success. Even in its moments of darkness Wonderfalls is a very warm show, and that’s in no small part thanks to the impeccable casting, with a string of hugely endearing thesps – many of whom have worked with Fuller before or since – delivering some of the finest dialogue seen on contemporary television. Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas is a flawless lead, making Jaye Tyler – a character who, in less skilled hands, could have ended up as something of a whinging cowbag – a flawed, sympathetic and wholly compelling heroine. With Dhavernas striking the perfect balance of vulnerability and bolshiness it’ll take a hard heart not to fall just a little bit in love with her – here at DragonDark we certainly cheer Jaye’s every success, mourn her every setback (the character is certainly fed through the emotional wringer without resorting to cliché) and curse the name of her every opponent, making Jaye arguably our favourite genre protagonist of recent years.
The supporting cast are also enjoyably quirky and individualistic without feeling forced. Kate Finnernan makes for an enjoyable foil as Jaye’s lawyer sister, with the two fighting like cat and dog through the season but still convincing as a loving family, while Lee Pace is a little underused initially as Jaye’s theologian brother but grows into an important secondary character later in the season. The ever-dependable William Sadler is a likable presence as the surgeon patriarch of the Tyler clan, and Diana Scarwid’s oh-so-smooth Caramel Bunny delivery ensures her Karen, successful novelist and mother to the Tyler brood, overcomes early characterisation as an ice queen to become a hugely enjoyable presence. Tracie Thoms is largely used as a sounding board as best friend Mahandra but manages to steal a few lines and moments for herself, and Tyron Leitso is a remarkably unpunchable romantic interest. More than just a pretty face, Lietso’s Eric – tending a bar and nursing a broken heart after his wife cheated on him during their Niagara Falls honeymoon – brings an enjoyable dynamism to the verbal sparring with Dhavernas, more than holding his own in terms of emotional heft and featherlight zingers.
Wonderfalls isn’t perfect, but it’s oh so perilously close. There is nary a weak episode among the bakers dozen that were produced, and barely even a bottleneck; even offerings such as Crime Dog, which slightly jarringly introduces a secondary character never seen or heard from before or since, have far-reaching repercussions. Certain plot elements are not satisfactory concluded, but that can be blamed on the show’s short shelf life – big plans were afoot for future seasons of Wonderfalls that will sadly never see the light of day.
Chuckle-seekers will have an absolute ball with the early episodes. The first half of the season is dominated by one-liners and situation comedy, with Dhavernas particularly being given a chance to sparkle with dialogue like “my family all work really hard, and they’re still discontented. I’m discontented and hardly do any work at all”, and some hilarious character beats in and around the shop front setting. Things take a turn for the more dramatic around the halfway mark (though the earlier episodes don’t shirk away from big issues, with Wound-Up Penguin in particular addressing matters of faith), with the relationship between Jaye and Eric (and a handful of twists that introduce a very welcome recurring guest star that will delight all DragonDarkers) providing plenty of heavy lifting. That’s not to say Wonderfalls stops being funny – you’re guaranteed a minimum of one bona fide belly-laugh per episode – but the speed and frequency of the wisecracks starts to subside just a little in the name of storytelling.
It’s all too easy to declare various releases as essential purchases, but here at DragonDark we really can’t imagine any life that would not be enriched by Wonderfalls – it’s flame may have burned briefly, but it was oh so bright. The box set is released in SD (as the show was filmed – don’t lament the lack of HD), with a handful of extra features that add icing to an already hugely appetising cake, including episode commentaries and featurettes. Pick yourself up a copy and see for yourself just what all the fuss wasn’t about; in any sane and just world, Wonderfalls would have run for years and years.