The obvious point of comparison for “Wonderfalls” would be Bryan Fuller’s “Dead Like Me,” a cult series that launched the year before the former arrived in 2004. (Its own tale of woe will have to wait for another day.) Both shows center on disgruntled young women whose lives are upended by higher powers, sending them on a reluctant journey of self-discovery. From there, of course, the two deviate, with “Wonderfalls” focusing on Jaye’s adulthood coming of age into someone who slowly accepts that, yes, it’s good to care about people other than yourself and to find real meaning in your life.
Indeed, long before the modern era of TV gave us captivating anti-heroines on shows like “Yellowjackets” and “Killing Eve,” Fuller and “Wonderfalls” co-creator Todd Holland (a prolific TV vet who did extensive work on “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Malcolm in the Middle”) delivered just that with Jaye. She’s a character whose contempt for the world is palpable and is constantly saying or doing the wrong thing, which only makes her all the more endearing and relatable. Caroline Dhavernas is perfect in the role, and it’s no wonder Fuller wanted to work with her again years later on “Hannibal.”
Dhavernas’ costars are, by and large, on the same level with her, including an amusingly laid-back Lee Pace as Aaron and Tracie Thoms as Mahandra, Jaye’s longtime friend and a fellow cynic with a heart of gold. If Tyron Leitso is less engaging as Jaye’s love interest, Eric, it’s only because the character is the calm at the heart of the show’s storm of deeply-flawed people who all stand to benefit from the good deeds Jaye begrudgingly carries out (many of which, at first, seem like the opposite of “good”). Even Jewel Staite (of “Firefly” fame) gets in on the fun as Eric’s estranged wife Heidi, who is as much a screw-up as Jaye in her own way.
Besides great characters, quirky wit, and rich substance, “Wonderfalls” offers style to spare (another core quality of Bryan Fuller’s work). Scenes transition like they’re photos in one of the ViewMasters customers can buy at Jaye’s workplace, and the camera is often whizzing about, whip-panning, or capturing the action at odd angles to highlight the quirky, heightened nature of the show’s reality. There are whole episodes shot and lit in ways that emulate the tropes of specific film genres (like noirs and thrillers), as well as fanciful scenes that dive into characters’ imaginations.
Even the CGI talking inanimate objects look decent by early ’00s standards — although, it’s the simple, enigmatic phrases they repeat to Jaye that really stick in your memory (“Get off your ass!,” “Lick the light switch,” and my personal favorite, “Have a pancake!”).