Guided by Voices

Freaks and mystiques: Not just another drama about a girl who talks to stuffed animals

The cute magic chick has been a fixture on television ever since Bewitched coaxed a nation of impressionable young girls like me into believing we could get anything we wanted by wrinkling our pert little noses. Several decades later, another blonde with paranormal powers arrived in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which somehow integrated disparate strands of the girl-teen personality (moody witch wannabes, nerds, cheerleaders, jocks). It both embodied and transcended the new wave of girl power.

After Buffy retired last spring, a spate of series featuring mystical females materialized on the fall schedule. Tru Calling(Fox) functions as a rather lifeless star vehicle for Eliza Dushku (formerly Faith on Buffy), who solves mysteries by talking to corpses. Slightly more homespun is Joan of Arcadia (CBS), about a troubled suburban high school student who receives useful messages from God. Then there's George, the heroine of Showtime's Dead Like Me, a sulky blonde teen who dies while working as an office temp. Having squandered her chance to make something of her life, she's now forced to navigate the bureaucracy of the afterlife. George's new job as a "grim reaper" means that she must "pop" the souls of people about to die. Although Dead Like Me started out full of quirky promise, it still hasn't found its footing, wavering between sarcasm and sentimentality. Its creator, Bryan Fuller, was apparently dissatisfied with the show's direction and left early on, to be replaced by the man responsible for schmaltz like Touched by an Angel. Fuller, meanwhile, joined forces with Tim Minear (Buffy, Angel) and Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle) to create Wonderfalls.

Wonderfalls is not just another sassy-girl-finds-herself-in-supernatural-circumstances series. Or rather it is, but in the most delightful way. Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) isn't dead yet, she's just stuck in a dead-end job. An overeducated, undermotivated 24-year-old slacker, Jaye has returned home to Niagara Falls with a Ph.D. and a bad attitude. She lives in a trailer park called the High and Dry and punches the clock at a kitschy gift shop, where she festers and seethes. Jaye's a marvelous creature, a giant clenched fist of disgust and defensiveness, and a pretty one at that—like Parker Posey with a dash of Alicia Silverstone on the side. She heaps scorn on her clueless customers, mocks her obese next-door neighbor, and trades affectionately bitchy banter with her equally snarky siblings. "You're spiteful in a way that the definition of spiteful doesn't quite prepare you for," suggests her best friend, Mahandra. "Disappointing your family is an extreme sport for you."

Yet somehow Jaye becomes the recipient of an otherworldly gift: Tourist crap talks to her. Wax lions, stuffed lizards, brass monkeys—they all order her to do things that make no sense until the end of each episode. Mahandra assures her that it's normal to project our anxieties onto inanimate objects, but Jaye is pretty sure that she's lost her mind. She also resents being forced to perform acts of random kindness against her will, like returning a stolen purse to an obnoxious customer or making a love match for her judgmental sister. No matter how hard Jaye tries to be rude, things always turn out right. Her new talent triggers a lot of madcap activity (particularly funny is a scene in which she and her sister perform an emergency tracheotomy on a UPS guy with a ballpoint pen) and a smattering of meditation on the notion of destiny. "Why struggle with fate?" asks Eric, her puppyish love interest. "Life can be sorta peaceful when you stop struggling." Repulsed by any hint of sappiness, Jaye retorts, "It's a lot like drowning that way."

Wonderfalls' visual grammar shouts "Zany!"—something it shares with a number of recent screwball dramedies like Keen Eddie, Lucky, Nip/Tuck, even Las Vegas. The camera careens all over the place, speedy and disorienting, offering an ultravivid but always unreliable perspective. In terms of TV taxonomy, though, I'd file it somewhere between Freaks and Geeksand Arrested Development. Wonderfalls covers the dysfunctional family angle with the cartoony fervor of Arrested Development, while also applying Freaks and Geeks-style hipster detachment to Jaye's twentysomething quandaries. And then the show pokes fun at itself for doing all of the above. In an upcoming episode, a young reporter researching a zeitgeist piece on "Gen Y losers" stalks Jaye, telling her, "You represent a generation of young people who've been blessed with education and opportunity who don't just fall through the cracks but jump through." Horrified to be so easily categorized, Jaye protests, "I'm not a crack jumper!"

I'm smitten with Wonderfalls, but it seems like it's built on a precariously whimsical foundation that could easily topple over into cutesiness. So far the hour-long plots act like an excuse for whip-smart dialogue and revelatory human interaction. Jaye has locked herself in an "expectation-free zone," steeling herself against disappointment, and those talking objects force her to confront the world around her. The world around her happens to be Niagara Falls, the polar opposite of Las Vegas: Instead of hopelessness and desperation, Niagara suggests an excess of hope and optimism that makes Jaye downright nauseous. A TV show about how to grow up without losing your adolescent edge—that's the mission of Wonderfalls, and a fine one it is.

 
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