“Wonderfalls” comes late in a TV year that offered a plethora of angry young women called upon by supernatural forces to help strangers who do not always know they’re in trouble. “Tru Calling,” “Dead Like Me” and most similarly “Joan of Arcadia” are its chronological foremothers, though not its inspiration, and I would include the yenta comedy “Miss Match” (lately missing itself, sadly) as a close cousin. In helping others, you will not be surprised to learn, these women help themselves.
And while this is true also of “Wonderfalls,” what raises it above those other shows is that its main character, the spectacularly underachieving Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), who has a degree in philosophy from Brown, works in a Niagara Falls souvenir store and lives in a trailer park, does not welcome the improvements. She is on good terms with her alienation and her distancing irony, and not ready to let them go. Indeed, the worst thing that could happen to the show would be for her to surrender to happiness.
“Life can be sort of peaceful when you stop struggling,” says Eric, the cute bartender (Tyron Leitso, of “Dinotopia”), who is shaping up, but not too quickly, as a love interest.
“It’s a lot like drowning that way,” Jaye says.
“Wonderfalls” is not without moments of warmth and young love, but it distracts you from them as fast as it can. “I don’t help people,” Jaye insists, having accidentally caught a flying baby. “Take that ‘thank you’ back,” she tells a man whose 20-year sobriety she inadvertently helps preserve. “I’d be homebound, too, if I could get away with it,” she tells a neighboring hermit she reintroduces to the world, to her quick regret.
It is also refreshingly free of, for want of a better word, religion. There are no touching angels here, no talk of the lovely, gentle, caring universe that enfolds us all. Through a series of events so arbitrary as to be irrelevant, Jaye is suddenly plugged into an unnamed omniscience that manifests itself through otherwise inanimate talking animals -- a wax lion, a cow creamer, an appliqued buffalo, a mounted fish -- that give her orders whose meaning is not always clear: “See a penny, pick it up.” “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” “Give the lady a chair.” Action taken, one thing leads to another, but it’s a universe run on the order of Rube Goldberg, where first cause and final effect are often so far apart as to suggest no actual relationship between them.
Created and written by Todd Holland (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) and Bryan Fuller (who created the above-mentioned “Dead Like Me”), and co-executive produced by Tim Miner (“Buffy,” “Angel”), “Wonderfalls” is so well done, so fresh and unpredictable, and so little in thrall to conventional virtues as to make the weary reviewer prostrate with joy. TV is, almost by nature, a medium of constant disappointment: of good performance flattened by bad lighting, decent scripts killed by bad acting, high production values made to look shallow by ridiculous scripts. We are accustomed to these things from television, which because of its short production schedules and budgetary constraints and the need to sell soap is defined by compromise. But everything clicks here.
Even though the particulars of “Wonderfalls” are not particularly new -- there’s a best friend (Tracie Thoms), a kooky family, a funky boss -- the particulars of the particulars seem fresh. You feel you have stepped into a world that was not only there before you arrived, but before the writers invented it. And the writing is smart, not merely clever, free from the sort of pop cultural references that will make “Northern Exposure” all but unintelligible in a few more years.
Like that show, “Wonderfalls” is full of eccentric characters, but you are not required to love them. The series has a bit of a violent streak too -- the first person Jaye tries to help punches her in the face. The initial episodes include a tracheotomy by ballpoint, a Russian bride ordered by a 12-year-old boy (“If I just cashed in a bond and not used my dad’s credit card I’d be married now instead of grounded”), a girl who seems bent on stealing Jaye’s identity.
And there is her family, a competent, competitive brood who make Jaye look like even more of a slacker than she is. (One subtle detail is that she’s the only member of her family whose name doesn’t rhyme with the others.) They regard her with a disapproval indistinguishable from love, and an enthusiasm that sounds suspiciously like doubt. “I think it’s time to do something with your hair,” says her mother (a most brilliant Diana Scarwid). “Let’s you and I have a salon date.”
Much rests on the shoulders of Dhavernas, a Quebecois actress who has been working since age 12, though because it was all in Canada (and mostly in French) she still qualifies as an “unknown.” Dhavernas makes the show work so well, you can’t imagine it working without her; she can throw a little boy up against a wall in rage and not lose your affection. The rest of the cast -- most of them theater-trained (including Tony-winner Katie Finneran as her sister) -- are perfectly cast and equally fine.
There is also a theme song by XTC’s Andy Partridge, and not least there are the actual Niagara Falls spilling away powerfully in the background -- one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World -- which roots the show in the real world even as the surreal overruns it.
When: Premieres 9-10 tonight.
Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PGDLVS (may not be suitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, violence and sex).
Caroline Dhavernas...Jaye Tyler
Diana Scarwid...Karen Tyler
William Sadler...Darrin Tyler
Lee Pace...Aaron Tyler
Katie Finneran...Sharon Tyler
Creators, writers, Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller. Director, Holland.