by Jess Lynde
Greetings from Wonderfalls! Wonderfalls is one of those shows that’s incredibly hard to describe to people. It’s about a slacker gift shop clerk in Niagara Falls who suddenly finds herself tasked with missions from inanimate objects that speak to her. The concept sounds so crazy, that it’s hard to imagine how it could be so appealing. But Wonderfalls is one of those rare shows that can keep you smiling and laughing from start to finish with its offbeat, often over-the-top sensibility, and it is thoroughly enjoyable no matter how many times you watch it. The show is a real challenge to review because there’s so much goodness, it’s hard to decide what to comment on. I almost want to say, “Just go watch it,” and leave it at that, but what kind of review would that be?
In the pilot, we meet Jaye Tyler, our protagonist. Jaye is the perfect embodiment of the stereotypical, pampered Gen-Y slacker, who could have everything in life, but chooses to just glide along with no ambition and nary a care in the world. With a philosophy degree from Brown University, she has managed to achieve her high school yearbook goal of becoming overeducated and unemployable. She’s sarcastic, mean, bitter, and not what you’d call a “people person.” Jaye is so disinterested in and disengaged from life that absolutely nothing can phase her. That is, until the day a wax lion trinket with a smooshed face speaks to her. As in, its mouth moves and words come out.
Suddenly, Jaye’s perennial look of absolute boredom (or disgust) is replaced by confusion and wild-eyed disbelief, followed quickly by a fainting spell. Jaye is horrified by the experience and is convinced that she is losing her mind. She desperately tries to ignore the tiny lion and the other objects that start speaking to her, but they won’t let her be. They relentlessly hound her with vaudeville singing until she finally gives in and does what they tell her to do. And that’s when the real adventure begins.
The first half of ‘Wax Lion’ is devoted to introducing the cast of characters and setting up the premise. In the second half, we see how Jaye’s “missions” typically lead her on a twisty series of hilarious misadventures, before she is finally able to accomplish her assigned task. It turns out that the missions are all about getting her to help other people, even if she doesn’t quite know how. I love the delightful irony of this snarky, anti-social girl being coerced by possible hallucinations into actually helping people. Even better, she discovers she kind of likes it.
One of the best things about the show is its supporting characters. I especially adore Jaye’s family. The trailer intervention scene in which we first meet them is one of my favorites from the pilot. Seeing her perfectly coifed and power-suited family camped out in her cramped airstream trailer, discussing the best way to help her through her ‘sode is a riot. Jaye could not be more different than her family, and they clearly think she should be doing a lot more with her life. But, it also seems clear that they love and support her in their own way. (Her siblings’ suggestion that the family should just put her down like a dog, notwithstanding.)
I’m also a big fan of Jaye’s best friend, Mahandra, a waitress at their favorite bar. (I’m pretty sure Mahandra remains nameless in the pilot, but it is easier for me to refer to her by name.) Jaye has a great dynamic with Mahandra. They have such fantastic banter, and it is immediately apparent that they are great friends who go way back. “Disappointing your family is an extreme sport for you.” The way Mahandra just rolls with Jaye’s confessions that inanimate objects are talking to her is priceless.
And then there’s Jaye’s potential love interest, the new bartender, Eric. Aah, Eric (he totally reminds me of a younger, cuter Matthew Fox). Such an adorable and endearing sad-sack, complete with hilariously tragic backstory. How can you not laugh at the notion that his new bride cheated on him with the bellhop---on their honeymoon!---because she’s obsessed with linens and was driven to adulterous desire by a high thread count? (Just typing that question is making me laugh out loud.) The look on Eric’s face when he catches them is a riot. Poor guy. I don’t really want to laugh at his pain, but it is just too funny.
The visuals and direction for the series really add to the zany and somewhat surreal quality of the show. I especially love the use of View Master slides to switch scenes and make quick cuts. I also thought the use of the animated lamp shade to accompany the tale of the Maid of the Mist was inspired.
Caroline Dhavernas is outstanding as Jaye, with a great range of facial expressions. Her reactions to the various inanimate objects and her horror at the thought she’s going crazy are wonderful. “Oh God. I’m a crazy person.”
Katie Finneran, as Jaye’s sister Sharon, and Diana Scarwid, as her mother, are also outstanding. Their snappy line delivery and their dynamic with Jaye is a comic goldmine.
I really liked the way they built Jaye and Sharon’s relationship in this episode, and especially loved the scene when Jaye told Sharon she loved her and was amazed that it didn’t feel dirty.
As a western New Yorker, I’m always entertained by the shots of Niagara Falls. The show is set on the American side of the falls, but most (if not all) of those views can only be seen from the Canadian side of the falls. (If memory serves, the show was filmed in Canada.)
Nearly every line of this show can be considered a quotable quote, but I’ll try to limit myself to just a few favorites.
Jaye’s Dad (trying to be helpful): “Sweetheart? When’s the last time you had an orgasm?”
Sharon: “That sound you hear is stunned silence.”
Jaye’s Dad: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Millions of people have orgasms every day.”
Jaye (though the door): “Not ashamed. Mortified.”
Mahandra (about the brass monkey): “Is it going to tell me to steal something?”
Jaye: “I’d be so happy if it did, you have no idea.”
Jaye: “Your ass is ringing.”
Eric: “My ass rings a lot.”
Jaye: “You ever consider setting it on vibrate?”
Eric: “I’m not sure I’m secure enough in my manhood to do that.”
Jaye: “I was assaulted by a middle-aged Texan hausfrau during an act of kindness.”
Mahandra: “Why were you performing an act of kindness?”
Jaye: “Just wanted to see what it was like.”
Final Analysis: ‘Wax Lion’ hilariously introduces an engaging cast of characters and a bizarre, yet strangely intriguing premise. It is clever, twisty, quirky, occasionally outrageous, and just plain fun. I thoroughly loved every minute of it. Just go watch it.
Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.