Watching television on Fox in recent years has become a painful exercise in futility. Quickly establishing themselves as the most impatient network in all of television, Fox has developed numerous series with obvious potential, taunted their viewers with high quality episodes and promises of support, and then yanked them off the air in favor of the latest uninspired and exploitative "reality" show. The network has crafted an image so negative that audiences are starting to cynically shrug "why bother" when the next new show is announced, and it's hard to blame them. While some of these programs made it a full season before getting the axe, others like Firefly (another series produced by Tim Minear) never even had a chance, seemingly marked for cancellation before the first confusingly out-of-order episode even aired. Consequently, when Fox began to promote a quirky and intelligent romantic comedy named Wonderfalls, it was no surprise that "Save Wonderfalls" campaigns hit the Internet before the first episode was broadcast and no surprise when the series was predictably squashed after only 4 episodes. Now, almost a year later, viewers finally get a chance to see where this show was going and what the first season was really about as all 13 episodes of Wonderfalls are released on DVD in this "Complete Viewer Collection".
Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is a graduate of Brown Univeristy with a degree in philosophy and immeasurable potential, but she has created the ultimate stress-less, expectation-free lifestyle for herself, working retail at a Niagara Falls souvenir shop and living alone at the High and Dry Trailer Park. Her father (William Sadler) is a respected local physician, and her mother (Diana Scarwid) is an award-winning author of various travel guides. Quoting the inside of her mother's latest book-jacket: "The Tylers have three beautiful grown children. Their eldest, daughter Sharon, is a respected immigration attorney and the newest partner at the law firm of Merrifield, Hanson and Eldrich. Son Aaron was the youngest non-Asian to win the prestigious Fulton Scholarship for Religious Studies and is currently pursuing his doctorate in comparative religion. Jaye, a daughter, is 24." Needless to say, Jaye is the underachiever in her family, and as the series begins she is quite content with that status. However, her stress free existence quickly gets turned upside down when inanimate objects begin speaking to her delivering cryptic instructions that force her to interact with the very world she's tried so hard to avoid.
As you would expect, the instructions Jaye receives from these various inanimate objects -- a wax lion, a brass monkey bookend, a stuffed donkey, etc. -- lead her into the lives of visiting characters who have come to Niagara Falls for one reason or another. While she tries at first to ignore these instructions, she quickly learns that it is easier to just do what they say, and in the process, she finds that she is really making a difference in the lives of others. In addition, the episodes are structured in a thematic way such that Jaye's efforts to affect others in turn teach her about herself, and she often finds that the advice she is delivering to these strangers are words of wisdom she would do well to apply to her own life.
At first glance, it is tempting to compare Wonderfalls with another of creator Bryan Fuller's shows, Dead Like Me. Both are offbeat comedies that feature disaffected young female underachievers who are manipulated by some higher power and reluctantly find themselves in the process. However, Wonderfalls establishes itself very quickly as a unique show, and Jaye turns out to be quite different from Dead Like Me's Georgia Lass. At its heart, Wonderfalls is a romantic comedy, and its success is directly tied to the quality of Dhavernas's performance. Thankfully, the French-Canadian actress is an inspired choice for the lead role, and she creates a character who is believably contemptuous of the world around her and yet completely loveable and endearing. While much of the show is a comedy, it never loses sight of the fact that this poor girl is hearing voices, something that deeply troubles her as she fears for her sanity, and there are a few very dramatic scenes where Dhavernas truly shines.
While Jaye is clearly the central character of the show, and most of the action revolves around her, Wonderfalls also has a hilarious supporting cast that works well to counterbalance her detached approach to life. In the four episodes that aired on Fox, we get the impression that her family's crazy, but really they're very loving people who are just a little too involved with themselves and the lives of each other, and in the nine additional episodes that appear on this set, each of these characters gets a chance to really shine. Most notably is Jaye's brother Aaron (Lee Pace), who in the episodes that aired just seemed like some ancillary background character, but he is featured prominently in the fifth episode of the series, "Crime Dog", and we learn so much more about the relationships within the Tyler family through his interactions with his sister. The strongest supporting performances come from Jaye's sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) and her best friend Mahandra (Tracie Thoms). Each of them gets to chew up quite a bit of the screen in various episodes, and they both do a fantastic job injecting significant amounts of comedy into the show with their manic performances. Perhaps the biggest drawback in the supporting characters is Jaye's love interest Eric (Tyron Leitso), a bartender whose wife cheated on him during their honeymoon. Leitso's performance is fine, but the character is just too perfect. He always says and does the right things, and I found myself wanting him to be a little more three-dimensional and show some realistic flaws. That said, the love story still works great, mainly because Dhavernas is so amazing in the lead.
With programs like Joan of Arcadia, Tru Calling, and Dead Like Me on the air, the basic concept of Wonderfalls isn't as unique as one might think; however, the execution of the premise is often very original and is part of what sets it apart as a special show. From the opening title sequence and quirky theme by Andy Partridge (no relation), the viewer immediately knows that this is not your typical comedy series. Everything about the show is very stylized, transitioning between scenes like an old ViewMaster and frequently using distorted shots and awkward camera angles for effect. A great deal of time and effort also went into perfecting the special effects for all the talking objects, and the result is a huge success. Not only do the effects look lifelike and realistic with clever facial expressions, but the voices and accents given to these "characters" are always very humorous.
Another interesting approach that the show takes in this limited run of episodes is attempting to bounce between genres. "Crime Dog" is presented very much in a film noir style, "Safety Canary" is heavily inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream, and "Cocktail Bunny" is an attempt to do a thriller, albeit with many comedic elements. Some of these efforts are more successful than others, but I found that I enjoyed the ambition of each attempt. Nonetheless, running through every episode is some hilariously clever and witty dialogue that often reminded me of Joss Whedon's voice and sometimes even Aaron Sorkin's.
To be fair, not every episode is stellar, and there are a few stinkers in the middle of the season. However, the series really picks up with the ninth episode when Jewel Staite joins the show, and 4 of the last 5 episodes are very good. As it is always a concern with series that are cancelled before their time, I must be clear that the show does end with a distinct and satisfying conclusion. There isn't a cliffhanger, and the final episode does an excellent job concluding the series and wrapping up all the major plot threads. On the whole, Wonderfalls is not particularly groundbreaking television, and watching it certainly will not change your life, but it is immensely entertaining and has a sense of humor unlike just about everything else on television. It's such a shame Fox didn't give this show a fair shake, but many people worked very hard to bring these episodes to the public on DVD, and I for one am very thankful for that. I felt so cheated when the show was yanked off the air, and this release finally brings some closure and understanding to the Wonderfalls universe.
Included in this DVD set are the following episodes and special features:
The Complete Viewer Collection of Wonderfalls is spread across three discs, each one featuring a label designed like a ViewMaster cartridge with little clips from the show encircling the discs. These three discs are housed in two narrow mini-cases (the first two discs in one and the third in another) and slide into a narrow cardboard slipcase. The total package is only slightly larger than a regularly sized DVD case. The menus are adequate but nothing special with no animation or music of any kind.
Each episode is presented in anamorphic widescreen, but the series was clearly framed for a 4x3 television presentation, so there's really nothing to be gained here other than ease of viewing on a widescreen set. On the commentary for "Cocktail Bunny", the producers note that it was the cinematic approach to this particular episode that led them to treat all of them this way on the DVD. The video itself is a bit of a disappointment. There is quite a bit of grain in many of the outdoor scenes where the directors were losing daylight and had to correct the images in post-production. It's most distracting in scenes that were filmed at two different times (or even locations), and the camera is alternating between a fairly clean image and a grainy one during the dialogue of two characters. There is also a fair amount of edge enhancement, and the third disc exhibits some noticeable artifacting. It certainly isn't a terrible video presentation by any means, but it isn't very good either.
The audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1, and except for a few scenes (like the opening to "Safety Canary"), there really isn't any reason for the surround presentation. Unlike many TV shows that are brought to DVD with 5.1 audio, I must give it credit for having clearly audible dialogue throughout. While the actual quality of the audio isn't stellar, I never had to tweak the volume to hear characters and never felt like the dialogue was being drowned out by sound effects.
I should note that continuing the trend of other shows, much of the music has been replaced to save costs. However, since most of these episodes never aired anyway, it's not as big a deal as with some other classic series. Also, from listening to the commentaries, the producers went the extra mile to make sure a few key songs were not replaced, including Sarah McLaughlin's "Dirty Little Secret" from Afterglow, which fits perfectly in some very important sequences of the show.
Another thing to note is the order of the episodes. "Pink Flamingos" was the last (fourth) episode to air, but it appears second on these discs. There are also a few instances where "previously on" material is out of place as we haven't really seen that particular scene yet, but the annoyance is very, very minimal.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
For only 13 episodes of material, there is quite a bit of audio commentary presented on this release, with 6 of the episodes featuring full-length commentaries from Caroline Dhavernas, Katie Finneran, and creators Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller. For the most part, these commentaries are very informative. Unfortunately, almost all the discussion is between Holland and Fuller, while Dhavernas and Finneran sink into the background only speaking in rare moments. Scotch Ellis Loring (who plays Dr. Ron and voices some of the objects) also appears on the commentary for "Cocktail Bunny", but like his costars, he has very little to say. Thankfully, Holland and Fuller never seem to tire of talking about the show, and there is very little dead time on these commentaries until the final minutes of the series finale where everyone just sits back and watches it unfold without talking too much.
Personally, I think it would have been a better approach to have just two people on each commentary, isolating Dhavernas and Finneran with one of the creators on one or two episodes so we could really get to hear their thoughts on the show. However, there are some advantages to the way the chose, mainly that Holland and Fuller have enough time to talk about nearly every aspect of the show. Things they don't have time to discuss in one commentary appear in another, and there really is a wealth of information to be found. Perhaps most interestingly, they talk in some detail about what they wanted to do for both the second and third seasons of the show. Their plans for the second season were a bit outrageous, but it's not that unexpected from this quirky group, and what they had in store for the third season actually sounded very interesting. Also, they talk quite a bit about things that Fox made them cut from episodes for various reasons. After seeing what made it into the episodes and hearing about what didn't, it only further boggles the mind with regard to what is really going on inside the heads of network executives. While listening to this group talk for almost five hours does get a bit overwhelming at times, it's not as repetitive as most commentaries, and overall, I was quite pleased with the amount of information presented.
Included on the first disc is "Welcome to Wonderfalls", a standard behind-the-scenes documentary about the show that runs just under 25 minutes. Instead of just flashing a bunch of clips from the series, they do go into a surprising amount of depth on the show and have some interesting interviews and audition footage mixed in. Considering how many of these DVD featurettes are a waste of time, I was pretty impressed with the overall effort on this one. Pushed onto the second disc is something billed as a "Video Effects Featurette", but it's really just a couple of minutes of material edited out of the main featurette and slapped onto another disc. Mixed in with the other piece, it would be pretty effective, but isolated on the second disc like this just comes across as a transparent attempt to promote an extra "featurette" on the back of the box.
The final special feature in this set is a Music Video for the show's theme song, "I Wonder Why the Wonderfalls" by Andy Partridge. I want to be kind, because I appreciate the lighthearted spirit in which it was intended, but it's really quite terrible. Dhavernas and Thoms bop along poorly lip-synching to the lyrics while all kinds of imagery from the show (and from someone's wild imagination) plays in the background. On the featurette, Dhavernas says, "I did not want to do the video -- I admit it -- because I was afraid I would look like a dumbass, and I felt like a dumbass doing it." I'll let that quote stand by itself without further comment.
Tim Minear said of Wonderfalls, "I think it's a very specific voice and a very specific sense of humor," and I think that's a good way to put it. There are many hour-long dramas on television that have some great elements of humor in them, but there really isn't anything even remotely like Wonderfalls, and I think that's a major reason why it's so unfortunate that Fox had no faith in the show. I'm not sure how much longer the series could have remained good, as the show's formula would likely wear thin for more than 13 episodes a season, but I really would have liked to find out. While far from being perfect, Wonderfalls is uniquely witty and offbeat and at times very endearing and touching, and this DVD release offers quite a bit for those who watched the episodes that originally aired as well as people who know nothing about the series. Recommended.