The wall between cinema and television is blurring and some TV showrunners are bringing more to their medium than merely a premise, they are bringing a point of view. This article highlights the authorship of screenwriter Bryan Fuller and endorses his short-lived series “Wonderfalls”.
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Short-lived Shows you should See: “Wonderfalls”
There’s a concept they teach you in film school called “the auteur theory”. It basically translates to the “the author theory” but since it was advocated by New Wave director François Truffaut they stick with the French word because he’s a legend and it sounds cool. In a nutshell, the theory asserts that even though movies are a collaborative process it’s the director who harnesses all the talent to present a singular vision. Most audiences (or auditoires) may not have heard of this theory but they are more than likely to have utilized it when deciding what to see at the theatre. Directors like Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Tarantino are all examples of auteurs. Their style is recognizable because their work is defined by a personal flair they imbue in their projects. It is this authorship that has forged their reputations and garnered them a fan base.
You may be wondering what this has to do with TV. Or you maybe you’re wondering if you left that load of whites in the dryer. Either way, just hang in there, because I’m building up my case for a recommendation and I really want to sell you on this show. The point I’m trying to make is that some TV show runners, like Joss Whedon (Dollhouse), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Vince Gillian (Breaking Bad) and Lena Dunham (Girls), are gaining recognition as auteurs. They bring more to their storytelling than a premise populated with catch-phrase spouting misfits trading quips on a couch, they bring a point of view. When Dan Harmon was fired from “Community” it was more than a little obvious to fans that the quality of the production suffered even though much of the cast, crew and writers remained. The song was the same but the voice had changed.
With that in mind, it stands to reason that a show runner can be just as important as a network or a star when a viewer considers what they want to make room for on their DVR. For instance, if you like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” it might be in your best interest to learn who created that series and check to see if he’s created anything else. [FYI: It was that Whedon guy I mentioned earlier. Google him. He’s gone on to done some other stuff that’s pretty good.] So without further ado I’d like to tell you about a really visionary fellow by the name Bryan Fuller and why you should watch all of his shows, especially a short-lived, Fox series from 2004.
You see, much like Whedon, Fuller created some truly wonderful and imaginative teleplays only to have them go unnoticed and prematurely cancelled before an audience could discover their brilliance. You may have heard of a few of them: “Dead Like Me”, “Pushing Daisies”, “The Amazing Screw-On Head”, “Mockingbird Lane” and the critically acclaimed, “Hannibal”. Unfortunately, unlike Whedon the White (whose fan base rallied to renew his shows to life in the form of graphic novels and feature films) Fuller the Grey has battled the Balrog of Network Bureaucracy only to watch his projects fall into the chasm of series obscurity. But we live in amazing times and, with the miracle of DVD and streaming media, access to these overlooked gems is easier than ever and the one I’d recommend you start with the feel-good comedy called “Wonderfalls”.
So, what’s it all about, Alfie? Wonderfalls is the story of an over-educated but underachieving shop girl named Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas). Set in and about a souvenir shop in Niagara Falls, “Wonderfalls” is a quirky dramedy about a young woman stuck in a post-graduate malaise. Jaye is full of potential but is unmotivated compared to her loving but overbearing family. Her older sister is a high-powered lawyer (Katie Finneran), her father (William Sadler) is a respected Doctor, her mother is a bestselling author (Diana Scarwid), and her multi-degree earning brother (Lee Pace) lives at home and is still considered more successful. Jaye is snarky, apathetic and sarcastic but who could blame her when the young “mouth breather” she trained pass her over for a promotion. Jaye seeks support and advice from her sassy B.F.F. Mahandra (Tracie Thoms) and her unrequited love interest Eric (Tyron Leitso), the bartender at her favorite watering hole.
Things forever change for Jaye when a little smushed-faced, souvenir wax lion tells her not to give a rude customer her money back. Shortly thereafter, other inanimate animals begin speaking cryptic commands—a cow-shaped cream dispenser, pink lawn flamingos, the eagle on the back of a quarter and all manner of gift shop stuffed animals—and sometimes what they demand isn’t very nice.
Eric:“Does the little wax lion tell you to burn things or hurt people?”
Jaye:“He’s probably working up to that.”
Are the talking animals God? Are they Devil? Are they spirits connected to the local Native American legend “the maiden of the mist”? Or has Jaye completely lost her mind? The more she struggles to resist the more persistent the little animals become in forcing her to take action. In each episode, the animals motivate Jaye to set into motion a chain of unpredictable events that may hilariously humiliate her, embarrass others but ultimately end up helping an assortment of colorful characters in need.
So, why should you invest your time in a show that was cancelled a decade ago and didn’t last a full season? First, it’s really fun, it’s not that long of a commitment and it actually has closure. Just think of it like a mini-series. The 13th and final episode will leave you wanting more but it doesn’t end on an unresolved cliffhanger. It’s a short but rewarding investment of your time. Unfortunately, the central mystery is never settled but you’ll walk away feeling satisfied with where the characters end up and blissfully daydream of what could have been.
However, the best reason is that it’s the perfect introduction to the witty, romantic, and vivid works of Bryan Fuller. The man’s shows have an energy and rich visual palette that complements his clever dialogue and capricious plotting. A lot of television is grounded in the mundane real world with by-the-numbers photography, editing, and production design but Fuller’s signature offers a heighten reality that is both stylish and dynamic. His worlds can inspire wonder, intrigue or ( in the case of Hannibal) dread. A Bryan Fuller production is a cinematic gift you just don’t see that often on TV. “Wonderfalls” is a treat and every episode is like a savoring bite from an elaborate gourmet dessert opposed to the Twinkies of traditional procedurals or sitcoms.
As a fan all of Bryan Fuller’s shows, this was my reaction to the news of January 16th that the third season premiere of NBC’s “Hannibal” had been pushed back to summer. Fuller’s shows have a history of being cut short and his fiercely loyal fan base tend to have strong feelings about being denied his work. “Hannibal” is tonally the antithesis of “Wonderfalls” but the quality is always : The writing, the performances, the cinematography, the production design, the costumes, the music, the editing, and the determination to push the boundaries of the status quo of Television storytelling. His shows have spectacle, a biting sense of humor and humanity. “Wonderfalls” is a wonderful first step into the Fullerverse: a realm filled with charismatic actors, creative directors, clever writers and, above all, the vision of an auteur named Bryan Fuller.
Trivia & Tidbits
- “Firefly” fans may appreciate that Tim Minear worked on “Wonderfalls” as an executive producer and seeing Jewel Staite appear in a reoccurring role.
- Fuller started his career writing for “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” and “Voyager” and contributed as a story editor and co-producers for either 22 or 81 episodes (depending on your source).
- Fuller created the Showtime original series “Dead Like Me” but left halfway through the first season. I would recommend watching season 1 after “Wonderfalls”—the two shows have very similar themes and lead characters—but there is a jarring drop in quality by season 2 and I’ve heard the movie is terrible.
- “The Amazing Screw-On Head” is a quirky animated pilot for Adult Swim that was sadly not picked up. It is an adaptation of Mike Mignola’s (the creator of “Hellboy”) wacky comic and features the voice talent of Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce, Patton Oswalt, and Molly Shannon.
- Fuller likes to work with former actors and has recast them in his other projects, sometimes having them play the same parts. Lee Pace was a supporting character on “Wonderfalls” but the lead on “Pushing Daisies” while Caroline Dhavernas was the lead on “Wonderfalls” and a supporting character on “Hannibal”.