Bryan Fuller’s short-lived comedy-drama “Wonderfalls” centres on a directionless philosophy graduate working a retail job who receives cryptic directions from seemingly inanimate animal figurines. It was the first television show Fuller ran (albeit together with Todd Holland) from start-to-finish, as “creative differences” saw him leave the first show of his own, “Dead Like Me”, early on in its first season. Some of the premise of “Dead Like Me” fits into Fuller’s later stylistic touches and pet themes, but “Wonderfalls” fits in much more neatly, and feels like the first proper expression of his creative sensibilities as a showrunner.
[There are no spoilers for the show in this review.]
What “Wonderfalls” has in common with “Dead Like Me” is a sarcastic, distant protagonist, but Jaye Tyler is a lot more three-dimensional than George Lass, and the lack of obnoxious voiceover prevents the show from falling so much into Jaye’s state of mind that it can’t be enjoyed at a necessary distance from her personality. Jaye is the main character, but she’s still just a character, she’s not the totality of the show, she’s not relentlessly narrating every minute, coaching every emotional response of the audience.
Jaye’s a loner, like George (and Will Graham, and other Fuller protagonists), but she’s not endlessly sullen, she has charm, and other characters make fair criticisms of her often, making it clear the show isn’t asking for us to wallow in her worldview. The show is sympathetic to (some of) Jaye’s struggles, but it doesn’t force the viewer to be, and it develops her enough that she has the internal contradictions and set of both likable and unlikeable features that makes her feel like an actual person.
“Wonderfalls” also opens with a kind of mythic prologue, like “Dead With me” did, but it doesn’t make the bizarre move of squandering all the iconography and mythology of its lore the way that “Dead Like Me” almost completely ignored all imagery relating to death and the Grim Reaper. “Wonderfalls” revels in its mythology, its set of animal figurines and their endlessly oblique way of communicating. The penultimate episode’s dive into Native American mythology comes off a bit half-baked and confused, but did show commitment to exploring the show’s mythology. If anything it threatens to make the mythology rote by adhering to the same procedural structure so much – Jaye receives cryptic instructions from an animal figurine, misinterprets them, gets in a wacky set of antics trying to follow them, then in the end realises what they truly meant and things work out fine. But in the second half of the season, the procedural structure breaks down, and the show follows a much more serialised arc. Interestingly, the exact same structural shift happens in the first season of Fuller’s later show “Hannibal”.
There are a lot more flashy visuals in “Wonderfalls” than there were in Fuller’s earlier work like “Carrie” or “Dead Like Me”. Speed ramping is frequently used, as is split-screen (most notably in the finale), use of reversed footage in the episode “Crime Dog”, the View-Master cutaways, they all give the show more of a distinct visual flair (though of course not nearly as much as the more experimental and high-budget Fuller efforts like “Hannibal” and “American Gods”). Surely much of the credit goes to Todd Holland, who has worked on other shows with distinctive visuals before, like “Twin Peaks”, but it’s also interesting as a sort of foreshadowing for the wacky visual antics to come from later Fuller shows.
The balance of comedy with drama feels a lot more refined here than it did in “Dead Like Me”. Infidelity is a well the show returns to frequently, and Jaye’s personality is sometimes framed as sad and depressive rather than just a relatable slacker-type worldview. The Gen Y focus feels a lot more and empathetic and real than the sorts of generational mindsets shows usually try to embody. The magical realism of the show, and the way religious ideas amp up later in the season, play into some of Fuller’s thoughts on religion – “It’s just a thing we don’t know about and we have no understanding of. But I think everybody who has a brain realises that the space between their ears is infinite and not five inches wide. That’s sort of godly to me….With ‘Dead Like Me’ and ‘Wonderfalls’ there is an active spiritual element that is hard to define with the standard religions we have available to us. I’m not pro-religion or anti-religion, just pro-respect for life”. Religion would of course eventually get full focus in Fuller’s “American Gods” adaptation.
It’s not nearly as ambitious or my exact style the way Fuller’s later, more dramatic shows are, but “Wonderfalls” is still a lot of fun, a “quirky” comedy-drama hybrid that doesn’t feel saccharine or like it’s trying too hard at all. A lot of that rests on Caroline Dhavernas’ performance that carefully manages the abrasive aspects of her character, but a lot of it also rests on skills that Bryan Fuller would hone in those later shows. I give it three wax lions, and a brass monkey.