Monday, March 21, 2005

What I'm renting: Wonderfalls

I’m quickly becoming addicted to DVD sets of TV shows, which is dovetailing nicely with the fact that I don’t watch much TV any more. I catch The Amazing Race when it’s on, Survivor and The Apprentice when I remember, and definitely Arrested Development. However, since there are only four more episodes of the show left (dammit), that will be one less thing to worry about.

I actually started to watch Lost and Alias this year, but frankly, it just seems easier to wait for the DVD sets to come out and watch them all at once. This is also massively convenient for cable shows, since I don’t have cable. Thus I can catch The Shield and Deadwood and Carnivale and whatnot. Finally, it’s good for watching shows that I never saw that were quickly cancelled, such as Firefly, or Freaks & Geeks, or Wonderfalls.

Admittedly, the experience of watching shows this way is completely different. When you watch a show week to week, year after year, it becomes part of your life. When Star Trek: The Next Generation left the air, it ended something that had been part of my life between the ages of 24-31. That’s a big hunk of prime, life real estate.

Wonderfalls was one of a recent long string of ‘young woman inconvenienced by the supernatural’ TV shows. There was Buffy, obviously, but more pertinently Tru Calling, Joan of Arcadia, Medium (although that’s not a young woman), Dead Like Me, etc. All of these deal with women who are forced by some higher power to do things and intercede in others’ lives; or deaths, as the case may be, despite their wishes not too.

The show Wonderfalls most reminded me of was (although except for Buffy I haven’t seen any of the others I’ve listed above) was Dead Like Me. This wasn’t that good a sign, as I didn’t like that show very much. I basically rented on disc of the first season set and then moved on to other things. I didn’t find the show’s conception of the afterlife that intriguing, the attempts at life lessons heavy handed, and the frenetic directing style, all spastic camera movements and such, overly twee. Worse of all was the show’s main character, who was basically just obnoxiously mopey and sell-involved.

Dead Like Me portrayed the danger of doing ‘quirky’ TV. When your show is quirky, it tends to hit a very specific note. If you dig that note, chances are you will love that show, perhaps passionately. On the other hand, if that note doesn’t hit you right, chances are you will find the program anything from somewhat irritating to outright insufferable. Dead Like Me, for me, was on the somewhat irritating end of the spectrum.

The central characters of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls were very similar, both being young, bright but deliberately underachieving women who are struggling and rebelling against the expectations of their families. Both have extremely problematic relationships with their moms especially, both talk that TV brand of heightened intelligence and pop culture snarkiness. And, finally, both are chosen by some mysterious higher power to break out of their shells and involves themselves with other people, whether they want to or not.

It was only while listening to a commentary track for the pilot of Wonderfalls that I learned that both shows were created by the same guy. This actually made me respect Wonderfalls less, and as I actually thought about it, I realized the two programs were ever more alike than I had originally felt them to be.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that people in Hollywood don’t largely make their fortunes regurgitating the same sort of material over and over again. However, I think if you’re going to go ‘quirky’ stuff, it shouldn’t be so nakedly derivative of itself. Something that sets Joss Whedon, for example, apart is that he not only followed up Buffy with Angel, but with the markedly different and equally successful (at least artistically) Firefly. Wonderfalls is to Dead Like Me what a show about a young female werewolf hunter would have been to Buffy.

All that said, I actually liked Wonderfalls a lot more. I found the central character not nearly so grating, and the supporting cast a lot more interesting. The show revolves around young slacker Jaye, who works a hopelessly boring but low-pressure job at the Wonderfalls souvenir store at Niagara Falls. (Talk about a scenic background!)

In the first episode, Jaye is touched by the supernatural, and finds that representations of animals—statues, puppets, plastic flamingos, stuffed fish and even shirt logos—begin talking to her and ordering her to do things. Jaye is mortified by this on several levels, but perhaps most prominently because the entire goal of her life has been to separate herself as much as possible from other people. However, she is susceptible to guilt, and terrible things happen to people when she ignores her orders. Plus, they tend to keep talking and or singing to her 24 hours a day until she gives in.

The animals are animated in different styles, appropriate to their nature, and are pretty amusing. The humor is generally intelligent, and again, I liked Jaye well enough and some of the supporting cast more. Jaye’s father might be the first likeable Republican I’ve seen in a network show for quite a while, and Jaye’s brother Aaron, ignored by the first several episodes, quickly moves to center stage and became my favorite character.

Jaye’s successful Martha Stewart-ish mom and successful lawyer sister are too self-involved to see that Jaye’s acting even more weird than normal lately, while her loving dad continues to benignly overlook her life and it’s continuing travails. This leaves Aaron the only one to notice that Jaye is acting literally insane. Conveniently a comparative religion major, not to mention an atheist, he is at first convinced and much concerned that Jaye is crazy when he notices her have one-sided conversations with inanimate objects. Later, he gets a sign that maybe there is some supernatural force at work here, and it both humorously and realistically freaks him out big time. This is probably my favorite of the show’s plotlines.

I’ve watched the first eight episodes, some of which never aired before the show was taken off the air. The last disc is in the mail, featuring the final five shows. In terms of extras, most of what we’re talking about are some cast and creator commentary tracks, which frankly I didn’t find worth listening to. They were OK, but I’ve got hundreds of DVDs sitting around unopened, and hundreds of others in my Netflix list, and frankly I just didn’t find them worth my time.

I’m tending to like the show more as it goes along. We’ll see where the final five chapters take us. In the end, I’m sorry the show got cancelled, and no doubt would have continued to enjoy it on DVD had it stayed on the air. However, I didn’t see anything like the sense of mourning I felt watching Firefly and realizing episode by episode that I was falling in love with a show that would never reach fruition.


At 11:46 AM, Anonymous twitterpate said...

"I didn’t see anything like the sense of mourning I felt watching Firefly and realizing episode by episode that I was falling in love with a show that would never reach fruition."

Ouch, that's a nasty feeling indeed. One of the worst drawbacks to the otherwise enjoyable shift of tv drama towards long-term story arcs.

For some shows I just want to chase down the writers, grab them by the collars and beg "For goodness sake, tell me HOW IT ENDS!"

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Yeah, and while I'll be glad for the Firefly movie, it doesn't really solve the problem. Plotlines that were meant to take months or even years to resolve will be crammed into the film to make sure they get addressed.

It's not just short-lived shows, either; it's more ones that had yet to hit their peak. Futurama was on for four years, but still getting better. The same with the presumably soon-to-be-cancelled Arrested Development, now in a truncated second season.

Meanwhile, some beloved shows last past to, or even past, that point where you're ready to let them go: Star Trek: TNG, X-Files, The Simpsons, etc.

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a note of distinction, the music video on disc 2 is easily the most embarassing special feature ever put on disc. Watching Jaye dance to the (somewhat catchy) theme song in front of computer-generated backgrounds put together by the kind of video publishing company one would find at a mall kiosk or Disneyland, you can't help but pity the poor girl.

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I agree. The lipsyncing is just embassassing.


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