Writer and producer Bryan Fuller is famous for his quirky, fabulist television shows. From 2003’s Dead Like Me to American Gods, Fuller’s series mix a sarcastic cynicism with a sense of wonder at a world that regularly intersects with the supernatural in unforeseen ways, all with a style that is as colorful as it is gruesome.
Despite—or perhaps because of—his distinctive style, Fuller has had a history of creating inventive television shows, but not seeing them through to the end. Most recently, Fuller left Starz’s critically-acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods over questions of budget and creative control. Before that, Fuller left Star Trek: Discovery just two months before the series started filming, and he famously left his first series, Dead Like Me, after a handful of episodes. While conflicts with network bosses are quite possibly the price of having a distinct voice and vision in a medium that has traditionally focused on the mass audience, the shows that Fuller does stick with also have a history of going off the rails or ending on wholly disappointing notes.
And that’s what makes Wonderfalls so amazing. The series, co-created with veteran television director Todd Holland, is the rare show that Fuller saw through from beginning to end, all while managing to have a cohesive plot and a mostly-satisfying conclusion. More importantly, it’s devastatingly funny.
Wonderfalls stars Québécois actor Caroline Dhavernas as Jaye Tyler, a recent Brown University philosophy graduate who has returned to her childhood home in Niagara Falls, New York. Without a sense of purpose in her life—but not wanting to live at home with her upper middle class Republican parents Darrin and Karen (William Sadler and Diana Scarwid, respectively)—Jaye moves into an old Airstream trailer and takes a job at a gift shop named, naturally, Wonderfalls.
But, since Fuller is involved, that isn’t all. Soon after settling into her low-pressure/low-reward life at Wonderfalls, Jaye starts to hear voices. Or, rather, animal-shaped things around Jaye start talking to her, telling her to help the people around her. The directions, however, are vague at best, leaving Jaye to wonder what comments like “bring her back to him” are supposed to mean.
Needless to say, Jaye gets quite frustrated with the situation. A consistent theme through the series’ 13-episode season is Jaye struggling against her role as an unwilling modern Joan of Arc, until she finally accepts that the universe seems to have some plan for her and that it probably doesn’t make sense to throw away a gift that other people seem to want.
Wonderfalls works so well by offering a middle ground in tone between Fuller’s earlier Dead Like Me and his later Pushing Daisies. It largely maintains Dead Like Me‘s dry, sarcastic humor, and in many ways Jaye feels like a much more interesting George Lass who happened to finish college before having a crisis of purpose. But the series’ overarching tone is far more optimistic than Dead Like Me‘s. While George and her fellow reapers served a faceless bureaucracy that bordered at times on officious, Jaye serves something far more benign. She might be the universe’s butt puppet, but Jaye does make people’s lives better.
At the same time, while Wonderfalls definitely has Fullerian touches, such as fast motion camera movements or the use of a View-Master stereoscope advancing slides as an editing swipe, it does not have the hyper-theatrical aesthetic of Fuller’s later works. Unlike Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls feels grounded in the real world. The downside of this is that the cinematography is rarely especially noteworthy, and framing remains tight—unsurprising for a series made in 2004 when most viewers would have watched the show on a 4:3 CRT television.
It is clear, though, that Fuller learned some lessons from his time on Dead Like Me. Chief among them: make things clear in the pilot, so that someone else can’t change it later. To avoid the network-mandated queer erasure of Fuller’s earlier show, the plot of the Wonderfalls pilot, “Wax Lion,” included a convoluted sequence of events that ended with Jaye’s sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) coming out to her.
The casting is also significantly stronger than in Dead Like Me, which suffered from some weak performers in key roles. Almost everyone in the main cast is perfectly suited for their roles, including all of Jaye’s uptight family, each of whom are slowly given room to demonstrate just how weird they really are. But the true standout—aside from Dhavernas herself—is undoubtedly Jaye’s brother Aaron, played by the then mostly unknown Lee Pace.
While Aaron starts out as probably the least interesting of the Tyler clan, Pace infuses the role with so much charm that by the middle of the series he becomes a highlight. Aaron’s growing obsession with the voices Jaye hears—especially the cow creamer that he first sees her interact with—becomes a genuinely compelling plot on its own, as he is suddenly faced with meaning in a world he believed to be meaningless.
Pace is also half of the series’ most compelling romantic pairing, that of Aaron with Jaye’s best friend Mahandra McGinty (Tracie Thoms). Like Pace, Thoms excelled in the role of best friend, but putting the two of them together allowed them to really show off what they were capable of, and also gave us one of the single best laugh lines in the entire series. Watching Mahandra cope with her guilt over hooking up with her best friend’s brother brings a lot of nuance to a character who was too-often sidelined by Jaye’s talking animal of the week. Jaye’s romance with the barely-married-and-not-yet-divorced Eric Gotts (Tyron Leitso) flails in comparison to Aaron and Mahandra.
But it’s not just the humor, sense of style, and top-notch acting that made Wonderfalls so compelling. It also centered the cohort that skirted the generation line between Gen-X and Millennial, overtly adopting the Gen-Y monicker at one point. It’s easy to dismiss Jaye and Aaron as over-educated and entitled, but in reality both are educated just enough to understand the pointlessness of the commercial life around them. And it’s only in rejecting that pointlessness that both find a point to existence.
In retrospect, Jaye’s life is dramatically different from those of the Millennials who would follow her. She consciously chooses things—working retail, living in a trailer park, etc.—that many since have found themselves forced into in spite of their dreams. But Jaye’s dissatisfaction and malaise with the world and with the power structure around her—personified in high school frenemy Gretchen Speck-Horowitz (Chelan Simmons)—speaks to a growing sense that people have to construct their own meaning.
Unfortunately, the series at times goes about constructing that meaning in rather dubious ways that are deeply problematic, especially on the indigenous representation front. The series opens with a version of the Maid of the Mist story that it acknowledges to be made up, and a later episode centered on the local (invented) Native American tribe flirts with putting Jaye in a white savior role while also suggesting aspects of indigenous culture are put on for show for white people. While there are no doubt very interesting stories to tell in the Wonderfalls universe involving the indigenous peoples of the Niagara region, the white men who produced, wrote, and directed these episodes were not the people to tell them.
Problematic aspects aside, Wonderfalls is still worth seeking out. Its 13 episodes offer a cohesive story that feels complete at the end. Even if we know that Jaye will have further talking animal-inspired adventures, we can rest easy knowing that she has largely come to accept her unexplained role in the universe.