What creates a cult phenomenon? Cult television shows or movies certainly have to meet certain criteria. They must have a devoted (sometimes almost slavishly devoted) fan base. They are usually quirky or at least a little different. Sometimes they have tragic endings, such as being cancelled too soon or being unappreciated in their time. Perhaps no television series in the last decade epitomizes the qualities of a cult TV show more than Wonderfalls, the off-beat and thoroughly engaging program created by Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland. This week (April 1, to be exact) marks the tenth anniversary of its untimely cancellation by the Fox network.
To the uninitiated, perhaps a short introduction is necessary. Wonderfalls centers on Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas, who now stars on Fuller’s Hannibal), a disaffected twenty-something who works at a tacky souvenir store in her hometown of Niagara Falls, New York. She’s over-educated (she has a philosophy degree) and completely unmotivated. When the series begins, she’s living in a trailer park and has just been passed over for a promotion at work. Even though her house has wheels on it, her life doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere (at least not anywhere interesting). She has a strained relationship with her family, who in contrast are all more successful. Father Darren (WilliamSadler) is a doctor at the local hospital. Her mother Karen (Diana Scarwid) is a well-known travel guide author. Sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) is an immigration attorney (and closeted lesbian), and her brother Aaron (LeePace) is a theologian (and atheist) pursuing his Ph.D.
Her life has settled into a groove that she seems resigned to. She hates her job, but can vent about it with her best friend Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), who works as a waitress at the local bar. Things are pretty mundane, that is until she starts hearing voices. After almost choking to death during her lunch break, she returns to work and is understandably disturbed when one of the souvenir tchotchkes speaks up (lack of a larynx aside) and tells her to not give a customer their refund. Eventually, any animal-shaped object (it has to have a face, according to Jaye) starts communicating with her. Sometimes they repeat cryptic statements; sometimes they give her advice or orders. When she listens to them, she sets in motion events that end up affecting the lives of not only her family and friends, but also strangers she’s now forced to interact with. Complicating things even further (as if believing you’re losing your mind isn’t complicated enough) is Eric (Tyron Leitso), the new bartender she has an immediate attraction to. But, nothing is simple in Jaye’s life. Eric is a New Jersey resident who came to Niagara Falls on his honeymoon, only to find new bride Heidi in a compromising position with a hotel employee shortly after checking into their hotel.
As I’m writing this, I’m finding that summarizing Wonderfalls in a few paragraphs isn’t easy. It combined philosophical ideas of fate and faith, while also presenting a complicated and multi-layered view of Jaye’s family (all of her family members play important roles in various episodes). It was ultimately a comedy, but different episodes had varied themes and looks, and from episode to episode the show could take on the tropes of the crime thriller (“Crime Dog”), a noir mystery (“Cocktail Bunny”) or 1980’s high school comedy (“Pink Flamingos”). It carried numerous story arcs through multiple episodes and certainly wasn’t a “drop-in” show that could be watched casually. After the airing of the pilot episode on Friday, March 12, 2004, the show immediately started to receive positive critical attention. Over the next three weeks, the show built a small but very dedicated fan base. At the time, reality shows seemed to be taking over television and Wonderfalls seemed like a breath of fresh air. There really wasn’t anything else like it on TV. Of course, Fox cancelled it after only airing four episodes.
That Fox never had much faith in the show was pretty evident from day one. It was originally scheduled to air on Friday nights at 9pm. This time is affectionately referred to in the TV industry as the “Friday night death spot”. Since people typically go out on Friday nights, it’s very difficult for a show to gain an audience at this time (probably the most well-known show that aired at this time successfully was The X-Files, and even that was eventually moved to a different night). Complicating things further was that Wonderfalls had a terrible lead-in. In the 8pm spot was the wretched reality show Playing itStraight. This show had an absolutely horrible premise: a solitary woman on a ranch is surrounded by attractive men, the only catch is that some of them are gay and it’s her job to identify and eliminate the gay ones (one a week, in typical reality show fashion) so the man she ends up with is straight. It was like if The Bachelorette had gay people on it and everything was awful. What was so offensive about Playing it Straight was how it pandered to the worst gay stereotypes: gay men are effeminate and can be identified by their mannerisms; women have “gay-dar” and can pick out who is gay and who is straight. It was pretty bad and really represented how low reality TV had sunk. The pandering and stereotypical representation of homosexuality on Playing it Straight was in stark contrast to the way the same topic was dealt with in Wonderfalls. In the pilot episode, Jaye discovers that her sister is gay. Karen’s homosexuality, as well as her insecurity and inability to come out to her conservative parents, is treated humorously at times, but it’s also dealt with compassionately (realistic representations of gay people weren’t as common on TV only a decade ago).
After airing for three weeks with a crappy reality show for a lead-in, Fox unexpectedly moved the show to Thursday night. They gave little notice of the change, airing only a few spots advertising a new night. The sudden move caused many fans to miss the airing of the fourth episode (“Pink Flamingos”) on April 1, 2004, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that it was now competing with Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, at the time in its first season and very successful. Within a few days, Wonderfalls fans (and there were already a lot of them) were finding out the show had been cancelled. Fans were understandably outraged, and did something that wasn’t very common back in 2004- they took to the internet and demanded action.
Wonderfalls was probably never that exciting from a television executive’s standpoint. Reality TV was very big at the time, and those shows were cheap to produce and could at times produce big ratings. Wonderfalls was more expensive to make. It had a big cast (seven major characters, not including recurring roles and guest stars), required occasional location shooting in Niagara Falls (although the show was primarily filmed in Toronto), and needed extensive post production (all of the animal animations were created through CGI). Add to this the current TV culture that must be able to declare a show a “hit” after only airing one episode, and it was pretty clear (in hindsight, at least) that the writing was on the wall. Wonderfalls had devoted fans almost immediately but didn’t post huge ratings numbers. But when the show started airing in March of 2004, all 13 episodes that Fox had ordered were basically finished and paid for. Fox made it very clear that they weren’t planning to air the remaining episodes at any time in the future. This seemed illogical to the show’s fans since a network will often “burn off” episodes of a cancelled TV show, usually during the summer months (even the recently cancelled Rake, a Fox show that garnered little to no critical or fan attention, is getting it’s episodes burned off this month). Fans wanted answers, and shortly after the cancellation a website called “Save Wonderfalls” was created. It quickly became a hub for fans to discuss the show, share rumors, and speculate on the future.
One of the reasons I chose to write about the Wonderfalls cancellation this week (aside from the fact that I love the show) was to highlight how much the Internet and TV have changed in a very short amount of time. Fans seem to have more power today, and some recent efforts to re-start fan-favorite TV shows (namely Arrested Development and Veronica Mars) have succeeded thanks to basic technological infrastructure that wasn’t there a decade ago. A new Veronica Mars movie was crowdfunded by fans through Kickstarter, and Netflix picked up Arrested Development. Both of these revivals would have been impossible in 2004 because TV just worked differently back then. It’s weird to say “back then” in reference to 2004, but this is one of those times where great changes in the way we receive entertainment are very noticeable.
Early conversations on the “Save Wonderfalls” message boards dealt with discussions of the episodes that had aired, rumors and plot lines from episodes that hadn’t aired, as well as instructions on how people could write to Fox and complain. There was a lot of anger being vented. People who hated reality TV lamented the fact that a smart and funny show like Wonderfalls wasn’t given a chance. There were hopes that a different network might pick up and air the unseen shows or perhaps even begin production on a new season. This also highlights another major difference between TV then and now; there just weren’t many places for Wonderfalls to go, since fewer networks produced their own series. Back then, the majority of original programming was coming from basically five sources: NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and HBO. Other networks produced shows (Bryan Fuller’s pre-Wonderfalls show Dead Like Me had aired on Showtime, after all) but these shows often flew under the radar or weren’t seen by large audiences. Today it seems that every network on television is producing only its own content, and even non-TV outlets like Netflix and Amazon produce original, incredibly successful programs. It’s very possible to speculate that had Wonderfalls been cancelled today, it might have found a new home on a different network. But alas, it was not to be. As months passed, it became clear that Fox had no intention of reviving the show or airing the rest of it. “Save Wonderfalls” shifted its focus, and started encouraging fans to contact Fox and ask them to release the series on DVD. Through the diligent action of the shows fan base, who would not let the memory of the show fade, their efforts were eventually successful. The entire series was released on DVD in 2005.
Ultimately, what carried the show through cancellation and into cult TV history is the quality of the program itself. Wonderfalls is at turns touching and philosophical, but it’s also funny as hell. If you’ve read this far but haven’t seen the show, I don’t want to spoil anything for you in my conclusion. Stop reading this blog and go binge watch it (another term that didn’t exist 10 years ago). The DVD is available on Amazon. You can probably stream it on Netflix. Go watch it. I’ll wait.
Good, you’re back. Funny, isn’t it? “Lick the light switch”, am I right? Oh wait, you didn’t get that reference? That means you didn’t watch it and you’re just a big liar. Go watch it for real.
After Wonderfalls ended, fans felt deprived of a great show. Questions of “what if” abounded on the Internet and people speculated on what would have happened on the show had it stayed on the air. On the audio commentaries on the DVD (which I totally recommend listening to- they’re actually informative and funny, unlike some audio commentaries), Fuller and Holland talk quite a bit about what future storylines would have been explored. Jaye was going to be committed to a mental institution. Karen was going to get mysteriously pregnant. Maybe these story lines would have worked, maybe not. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that would have probably irked die-hard fans ten years ago: Wonderfalls is fine (and almost perfect) the way it is.
Whenever a popular show gets cancelled, it seems that the first thing people do nowadays is take to the internet and demand that someone make new episodes. Sometimes fans are willing to finance these comebacks out of their own pockets, and that’s fine if it can lead to more quality programming, but I really think these instances are rare and not always the best for the legacy of the show. (Does anyone really think Family Guy has benefitted from the addition of countless new seasons?) Two other Bryan Fuller-penned shows, in my opinion, illustrate this.
Dead Like Me is a show that shares a lot of similarities with Wonderfalls (both shows have similar protagonists, both include supernatural elements). Fuller created the premise and tone of the show and left after just working on a few episodes, so the way the show wrapped up isn’t his fault, but the program had a dedicated fan base who wanted more after the show was cancelled after two seasons. What resulted was the full-length movie Life After Death, and it isn’t very good. It suffers most from the absence of series star Mandy Patinkin, who couldn’t be in it due to contract obligations on Criminal Minds. Without him, the heart of the show was missing. Dead Like Me is a good show too. If you haven’t seen it but wish to, do yourself a favor and skip Life After Death. It adds nothing to an otherwise solid run.
Pushing Daisies is the show that Bryan Fuller is perhaps most known for. Like Wonderfalls, it was suddenly cancelled (it too was critically acclaimed but was crippled by a writer’s strike that cut the first season short and caused the show to lose momentum). Repeated attempts to revive the show as a graphic novel, feature film, or even a Broadway musical have all seemed to stall. As more time passes, the task of reuniting the whole cast becomes harder and seems less likely (never say never, though- who thought anyone would ever be able to reunite the entire Arrested Development cast?)
No, Wonderfalls is fine just the way it is. It tells a story that mostly wraps up by the final episode. Eric frees himself from Heidi and returns to Niagara Falls to be with Jaye. Jaye seems to have at least come to grudgingly accept her abilities and realize that she has a part to play in the universe. There’s no unresolved cliffhanger, and few loose ends. The ending is satisfying. It makes the viewer feel as if we’ve been on a journey with these characters and learned something about them in the process. Jaye and Eric get their happy ending, and isn’t that what we should want for characters we like? I don’t see how more episodes could have made it any better.
On a personal note, Wonderfalls introduced me to the television shows of Bryan Fuller, and I’ve since gone on to watch and thoroughly enjoy Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies (I’m just starting on Hannibal- better late than never). As fans know, he has a unique writing style and vision that I completely relate to. It also introduced me to the power that a show’s fans can have when united behind a common cause. Following the aftermath of the show’s cancellation, I found myself part of a larger community, one that was like-minded and dedicated. When the DVD was finally released, I felt as if I had helped to make it happen. In the days before social media (at least as we know it today), it was heartening to see how something like a television show could bring people together and generate such strong feelings of loyalty. Fans of the show remain loyal, and as one of them I should know. In 2006 I had just started dating my girlfriend, and she noticed the Wonderfalls DVD on the shelf in my apartment. “I loved that show!” she proclaimed. Is it any wonder I married her?
Next time, a new topic. It might be something you've never heard of.