Fantastical Voyage

''Wonderfalls'' on Fox

By Dan Odenwald
Published on April 1, 2004, 12:00am | Comments

In the same whimsical, refreshing style that made Ally McBeal such a treat for millions of viewers, the Fox network has created its spiritual heir, a delightful new comedy called Wonderfalls.

The hour-long series focuses on Jaye Tyler, a disaffected recent college grad, who's moved back home to Niagara Falls, New York, only to end up as a cashier in a cheesy souvenir shop. Bored and directionless, Jaye (played by Caroline Dhavernas) fritters away the hours, waiting desperately for some sort of salvation.


Caroline Dhavernas (right)

It takes the unlikeliest of forms when inanimate objects begin talking to her. That's right. Small toys and figurines tell her to do certain things and essentially intervene in the lives of hapless strangers who enter Jaye's life.

Like any young and aloof slacker, Jaye initially tries to resist, thinking she's going crazy. But as she gives into the commands, she discovers -- much to her horror -- that she's actually helping people. Begrudgingly, she does her duty, not because she wants to, but because she doesn't really have a choice. The figurines won't shut up.

In last week's episode, for example, a toy monkey instructs Jaye to "bring her back to him," ostensibly referring to a wayward nun who's lost her faith. Loathe to meddle, Jaye reluctantly obliges and discovers that things aren't always as they seem. The tasks she's given aren't always immediately revealing, and consequently much of the show's fun is figuring out the mystery of it all.


Diana Scarwid

Like its predecessor Ally McBeal, Wonderfalls is a delicious leap into the fantastical, throwing strange and lovable people into improbable circumstances and asking the question that drives every dream: What if?

It's a program that caters to the sillyheart in all of us. What would you do if objects started talking to you? Would you go for electro-shock or happily comply? Would you see the misdeeds of Satan or perhaps the face of God?

Unafraid to be simultaneously funny and poignant, Wonderfalls chooses intelligence over pandering, substance over crudeness. Lacking the pretension that could strangle such a concept, the show balances its significant themes with a clever wit.

The scripts are thoughtful and tightly woven, and the skillfully chosen cast has the chops to pull them off. The beautiful and talented Dhavernas is extremely sharp, balancing the precise amounts of early twenties disillusionment with a young girl's inner optimism. Eminently likable, the character is a mix of sass and quips, trying to grasp at the last grains of reality she can.


Katie Finneran

The supporting cast is similarly spot-on. From her domineering, perfectionist mother (the hysterical Diana Scarwid) to her lesbian sister (Katie Finneran), the smaller roles are rich with potential. Worthy supporting performances are also turned in by Lee Pace, who plays Jaye's brother, and Tyron Leitso, who plays her bartender love interest. Thankfully, the writers have the necessary raw materials to build these characters into fuller, more complex people.

In an era when so much television is derivative and disappointing, it's pleasing to know that some network execs are willing to take risks. Despite its charm, Wonderfalls surely has a limited appeal. It stars a young woman who's seemingly trapped in a dream, dealing with such existential questions as meaning and destiny.

Wonderfalls
Starring Caroline Dhavernas, Diana Scarwid, Katie Finneran and Tyron Leitso
Thursdays
9 p.m.
FOX

The show, after all, is set in Niagara Falls. Can one think of a more loaded image for a romantic comedy dealing with the rushing forces of fate?

If Fox had any trepidation about Wonderfalls at all, they chose to deal with it in scheduling. For some awful reason, they buried it on Friday nights when presumably its most sought-after viewers are out and about pursuing their own destinies.

If it survives, it will be a testament to the show's strengths and ability to capture our imaginations. For viewers grown weary and depressed with the crap that constitutes most broadcast television, it's a joy to wonder what if.