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REPOST: Wonderfalls

Michelle Forbes as Miranda Zero in the (currently) doomed pilot for Global Frequency. Nothing to do with Wonderfalls at all, I know, but bear with me. Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 03/07/2005.

I think Sky's run of Wonderfalls slipped after, ooh, four weeks from primetime into a post-midnight slot: still, at least it got shown, and we still have the DVDs.

Showrunner Tim Minear has continued to curse any TV show he's associated with: since Wonderfalls, he's seen both The Inside and Drive pulled from the Fox schedules before their time. Meanwhile, co-creator Bryan Fuller is currently having considerably greater success with the similarly whimsical Pushing Daisies.

Death is not the end. God forbid that this should turn into one of those sites that quotes Bob Dylan all the time, but the grumpy old sod may have had a point there. Assuming, of course, that he was talking about the fate of certain types of American television shows in the early 21st century, which I admit is a bit of a stretch.

But it's true: in a climate when US TV executives are continually on the prowl for the cheapest, most efficient ratings-grabbers, they've found that reality shows deliver the maximum bang for the buck, while fantasy drama - you know, the stuff that used to be the cornerstone of the schedules - doesn't cut it for them any more. Interesting series are being given no more than a few episodes to prove themselves, and if they don't pull in the crowds from the word go, they're unceremoniously yanked in mid-flight. But over the last year or two, things have been subtly changing. Since the days of Star Trek, it's been acknowledged that these are the sorts of shows whose fans are more fanatical than most - and they have new ways of expressing that fanaticism, ones that weren't available when the original series of Trek was cancelled at the tail end of the sixties.

Take an example that's been making headlines recently: Global Frequency. Warren Ellis' comic was reviewed here a couple of years ago, and I mentioned at the time how its episodic Thunderbirds-on-uppers structure owed a lot to traditional television adventure shows. Pretty soon after that, the WB came sniffing around asking for a pilot. Some changes to the format had to be made, as a concession to the requirements of the form - one of the things I loved most about the comic was its continually rotating cast, but TV apparently requires at least a few characters who will appear reliably week after week. Nevertheless, a five million dollar pilot was shot, and by all accounts was a blindingly impressive piece of work. All accounts, that is, except that of the WB, who passed on the show and effectively killed it.

But you may have noticed that television isn't the only way you can see television nowadays. And recently, copies of that Global Frequency pilot have started turning up on filesharing networks. Warren Ellis, being a grumpy curmudgeon who knows when to let things go, has distanced himself from the ensuing fan frenzy - he likes the idea of a world-wide collaboration between people who don't know each other, but feels that it could be put to better use than just getting a TV show on the air. But show producer John Rogers has been following the results with interest, and is currently trying to find out if the pilot's increased exposure can bring it back to life. Only time will tell, but for now it's interesting to see how even a show that technically doesn't exist yet already has a rabid fanbase behind it.

Here's another example for you: Firefly. Joss Whedon, coming hot off the back of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel, wanted to try something different: an ensemble-based show with the trappings of horse opera, but set in space. With a pre-built audience of Whedon fans already out there, it's difficult to see how it could fail. But fail it did, mainly through the neglect of the Fox network. Disenchanted with the original pilot (a double length episode that set out the characters and the world they inhabited), they chose to effectively broadcast episode three first, dropping viewers into the middle of the story in the most confusing fashion possible. The show never really recovered from this, and after nine episodes were broadcast (finishing up with, amusingly, that pilot), Fox stopped showing it.

But the story doesn't end there. Because the fans got noisy, and demanded a Firefly DVD set. And they got one, which included four episodes which were shot but never transmitted - they tantalisingly moved the story along a bit further, but didn't even begin to wrap things up. The DVDs sold, and sold, and people started to take notice - and as a result, later this year you'll see Serenity in your local cinema, a Whedon-directed movie following on from the original TV show. Again, without pressure from the show's fanbase, none of this would probably have happened.

Caroline Dhavernas with funky-faced friend One of Firefly's producers, Tim Minear, had a disturbingly similar experience not too long after this when he worked as showrunner on Wonderfalls, which I'm finally getting around to discussing here. The original idea came from creators Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland: the former is a writer who's worked on cult favourites such as Dead Like Me, while the latter is a visually stylish director who's added unexpected fizz to shows like Malcolm In The Middle. How could a collaboration between them and Tim Minear go wrong? Well, the simple answer is that they made their show for Fox, who seem to be more committed than most other US networks to scrapping all interesting programming and replacing it with reality shows.

The lead character of Wonderfalls is Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), a disaffected twentysomething graduate who's found herself in a brainnumbingly dead end job - working in the Niagara Falls souvenir shop of the title. With no hope of progress or improvement, it looks as if she'll be there for the rest of her life or until she goes nuts, whichever comes first. So it comes as no surprise when a deformed toy lion from the shop starts talking to her. And terrifyingly, this is only the beginning - the Wonderfalls shop has a lot of items with faces, as do most of the tourist traps in the area, and one by one they all start talking to Jaye. Normally, what they'll say is a short, ambiguous phrase telling her to help out one of the many people who passes through the shop. Gradually, as it becomes apparent that she'll have to obey the animals whether she wants to or not, she starts to realise there may be some purpose to her life after all.

If this was just the story of a twentysomething girl going psycho in isolation, then this would be a slightly worrying tale. But Jaye is surrounded by friends and family, all of whom are determined to help her out against her will. Her family consists of mother Karen (Diana Scarwid), father Darrin (William Sadler), ambitious lawyer sister Sharon (Katie Finneran), and confused theology student brother Aaron (Lee Pace). There's a subtle joke in there about how Jaye will never fit in with the rest of her family, if you look for it. Her best pal Mahandra (Tracie Thoms) works in the local bar, and it's there that Jaye meets cute new bartender Eric (Tyron Leitso). Jaye and Eric's relationship oscillates wildly in typical romcom fashion - until a long-forgotten complication suddenly appears around episode nine, to nudge the series towards some sort of climax.

Except that Fox viewers never got to see that climax. The network got fed up with Wonderfalls very quickly on its initial transmission in Spring 2004, and pulled it off the air after a measly four episodes. But curiously, the production team was allowed to complete work on an entire series of thirteen - not just stopping partway through like Firefly did, but reaching the full completion of a well-defined series of story arcs. And after the inevitable fan campaign, all 13 episodes were released on DVD as Wonderfalls: The Complete Series, to great commercial success. A more paranoid observer might suggest that Fox deliberately used the truncated TV run as a loss-leading trailer for the DVD set, but even so it appears to have been a very successful move. Not to mention that the series is now starting to pop up across the rest of the planet - in July 2005 it's starting on Sky One in Britain (Tuesdays at 9pm, from July 5th) and TV3 in Ireland (Saturdays at 7pm, starting July 2nd).

Your cast for this evening, from left to right: William Sadler (Darrin Tyler), Diana Scarwid (Karen Tyler), Tracie Thoms (Mahandra McGinty), Tyron Leitso (Eric Gotts), Katie Finneran (Sharon Tyler), Caroline Dhavernas (Jaye Tyler), Lee Pace (Aaron Tyler). So, this girl with unexplained mystical powers is helping people who randomly drift through her life... it's all sounding a bit nauseatingly like Touched By An Angel, isn't it? Thankfully, the people behind the show realise this too - according to the IMDB, at one point the show was going to be titled Touched By A Crazy Person. And though it's a shame that all concerned didn't have the cojones to stick with that title, it shows how this differs from your usual pseudoGodbothering family drama - specifically, that we're never allowed to forget the possibility that Jaye might not be specially gifted, just unlucky and batshit crazy.

It's the edge of psychosis and sarcasm that lifts Wonderfalls above the rut of most current mainstream US television. Although it would never be possible for a network TV show to let Jaye coast through her aimless life without any chance of redemption at all, it does take a very very long time for her to achieve it, to the extent that you wonder if it will ever happen at all. Which is what makes the show a joy to watch - it takes all the cliches of inspirational fantasy TV, does everything in its power to subvert and pervert them, and still manages to be inspirational regardless. Part of this is down to razor-sharp clever dialogue delivered by an excellent ensemble cast. In fact, it may have been too clever for its own good - on one of the commentaries on the DVD set, Holland and Fuller recall how proud they were of the episode Crime Dog, which uses a classical film noir flashback structure, only to be told by the network that they thought it would be too complex for the average viewer.

You could spend ages trying to work out who on the creative team is responsible for what. The Tim Minear connection comes through in the Whedonesque use of pop culture references (for example, Jaye's suspicions of a nun's treatment at the hands of a priest - "yeah, I bet he Agnes Of God-ed all over her"). Holland and Fuller, judging from the gleeful bitchiness of their DVD commentaries, could well be responsible for some of the camper moments in the various relationship subplots ("I don't want to be a rest stop on your road to hetrosexual bliss, I wanna be one of those spiked mats they use in high-speed chases"). But it's pointless trying to allocate credit to people here - what makes Wonderfalls special is that it quickly found a voice uniquely its own, which doesn't really owe all that much to anything else.

It's a shame that that voice was silenced prematurely, but the thirteen episodes we were left with are a completely satisfying whole (though it's fascinating to hear Holland and Fuller talk on the DVD about some of their more outrageous plans for the second and third seasons). The UK gets to see it for the first time in July, while DVDs are freely available in the US right now, and presumably will appear in the UK once its run on TV has completed. And after that? Well, anything's possible. Rumours abound of where Wonderfalls could go from here, given its success on DVD - pickup by another network, possibly a movie version. Or maybe we'll just have to make do with the rather nifty thirteen episodes we already have. Whatever happens, I'd certainly like to hope it's not the last we've seen of Jaye and her mental menagerie. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

FOX TV used to have an official site for Wonderfalls [dead link], which was inevitably pulled off the internet as soon as the show stopped airing. Depending on how well The Internet Archive is behaving, you can use it to discover how the Wonderfalls site changed during its brief life.

FOX Home Entertainment, on the other hand, aren't as ashamed of the show as their relatives in TV, and have a site to promote the DVD release of Wonderfalls: The Complete Series.

Save Wonderfalls became a hub for fan activity in the wake of the show's cancellation. It was responsible for the campaign that led to the whole series being released on DVD, and still acts as a useful source of information on the current activities of its cast and crew. And if those rumours of a second series or spinoff movie ever come to anything, they'll probably be the first to know.

Sky One are broadcasting Wonderfalls in the UK, starting on Tuesday July 5th 2005 at 9pm. Irish readers can catch it slightly earlier on TV3, where it starts on Saturday July 2nd at 7pm. It'd be nice if either channel was sufficiently committed to the show to tell you more about it, but currently neither site has anything other than schedule information to offer (though Sky's search may reveal more nearer the time of transmission).

Tim Minear, executive producer of Wonderfalls, has an interesting official site that covers his projects past and present (the latter including his new show for Fox, The Inside [dead link]). And he's frequently a topic of discussion on the Joss Whedon fan site Whedonesque, because of his work on Angel and Firefly. Speaking of which...

...Serenity, Joss Whedon's movie spinoff from Firefly, will be at a cinema near you from Autumn 2005: the official site will tell you everything you need to know about it. Meanwhile, the splendidly titled Kung Fu Monkey is the best place to go to follow the progress of Global Frequency, as it's the blog of showrunner John Rogers.

Wonderfalls.co.uk [dead link, web archive here], unfortunately, isn't what you think it is.

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