Ten years ago today, a brilliantly imaginative, oddball dramedy premiered. Destined to air but a scanty four episodes, it lives forever in the hearts of its fans. Happy show-birthday, Wonderfalls. You were too precious for this dark world.
It’s hard for me to overstate my devotion to Wonderfalls. I remember watching the first episode and being filled with both joy and dread, delighted by how much I loved it, and horrified by how quickly I knew it would be canceled. It’s also the first show I ever pre-ordered on DVD, and I’ve watched it many, many times through. It’s only 13 episodes! That’s like, one bad Saturday. (Or one great Saturday, if you are me.)
The series centers on Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas, now on Hannibal), a 24-year-old Brown graduate who lives in a funky trailer and considers herself “overeducated and unemployable.” She works at a gift shop in Niagara Falls, where her ennui and sarcasm run wild — until the day a wax lion figurine starts talking to her. Jaye winds up begrudgingly helping people, and herself, based on the vague advice different animal tchotchkes give her in each episode. Her parents assume she’s had a mental breakdown of sorts; her brother (Lee Pace), a religion scholar, wonders if she has access to the divine. She herself isn’t sure why a brass monkey or a ceramic cow creamer would be talking to her, but she learns that ignoring the animals is far worse than appeasing them. There are some darling romantic plots, some good sibling squabbling, and lots of witty banter.
But I think what I like the most about Wonderfalls is that it’s a show that comfortably lets its main character be depressed. And not just TV-depressed, crying in bed after a breakup or whatever bullshit. Clinically depressed — isolated, bitter, anhedonic. It’s not catastrophic, severe depression, and Jaye of course experiences moments of reprieve. When things are bleak — depression-wise, or when things are just plain bleak for broad life reasons — sometimes it feels like it would take a weird miracle for anything to change. So when the wax lion starts talking to Jaye, and she listens, well, I bought it. Who hasn’t hoped for the universe to send them a sign?
Ten years on, there’s still nothing like Wonderfalls. Creator Bryan Fuller’s follow-up, Pushing Daisies, was even more whimsical and eked out two seasons, and his current series, Hannibal, while probably safer from cancellation, is a horse of a different, more gruesome color. There are other shows about complex young women (though not many and certainly not enough), but nothing with Wonderfall’s magical aspects. Given that the show only lasted four episodes on Fox, of course no one was in any great hurry to copy it, but I wish they would. I don’t need more cop-and-lawyer shows, or another sitcom about nasty people who hate each other, or another singing contest. I need another show about the quest for wisdom, even if that wisdom is coming from a cute little brass monkey.