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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wonderfalls: “Crime Dog”

Illustration for article titled Wonderfalls: “Crime Dog”
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Crime Dog” (season one, episode five; unaired)

You don’t screw with my family. Hey, no one’s more surprised than me on that. Honest.” — Jaye Tyler, “Crime Dog”

As the “unaired” part of the above description indicates, we’ve come to the end of the episodes of Wonderfalls that actually aired on television. Faced with dismal ratings, Fox canceled the show after only four episodes, adding it to the pile of esoteric shows that the network took a chance on but couldn’t figure out how to market or schedule and that were doomed from the start. (See also: Firefly, Kitchen Confidential, Life On A Stick, Greg The Bunny, and so many more.) In many corners of the Internet—and in the comments over the last four weeks—I’ve seen legions of people bemoaning this decade-old decision, blaming viewers for not being smart enough to appreciate it and blaming Fox for not giving the show enough of a chance.

Looking back at the show almost a decade later, am I disappointed that it failed? Absolutely, as I’ve greatly enjoyed all four of the episodes that I’ve watched to date, impressed by the performances and the wordplay and the unique twists. Am I surprised that it failed? Not in the slightest. Even by the standards of what Fox has taken a chance on over the years, Wonderfalls is a show that—much like its central character—actively defies any attempt at classification or standardization beyond the catch-all of “comedy-drama.” It incorporates random elements of other genres, switches between tones at a dizzying pace, using its characters when it feels it needs to and benching them when it doesn’t. Even the muses, its ostensibly defining feature, avoid becoming a constant as their origins remain cryptic and their level of involvement in Jaye’s life fluctuates. An episode of Wonderfalls can be anything depending on the writers’ whims, which is great for fans of that experimentation but a serious detriment to building a show’s profile starting out.

“Crime Dog,” the first of the unaired episodes, doesn’t give any indication that Wonderfalls would have moved to a more straightforward format had it survived additional episodes on Fox. If anything, it’s even more subversive and experimental than prior episodes, as pre-opening titles suggest the Tyler siblings appear to have stepped into a police drama with shades of film noir. Sharon’s cracking her knuckles and throwing down $100 for the privilege of smoking, Aaron’s keeping a neutral tone in the face of questions about “odorless cocaine cows,” and Jaye is cowed into silence by an officer whose interrogation turns the room into an echo chamber. The episode’s regular chyrons of “XX hours before the arrest” only further the feel of stepping into a completely different show, the wit and whimsy now having the flavor of gallows humor.

The events that took place before said arrest stem from the Tylers’ housekeeper Yvette (Audrey Wasilewski), who turns out to be French-Canadian immigrant that’s been in the country illegally for more than 20 years. (Karen was the only one aware of the truth, and her evasive response is perfectly in keeping with the character’s patrician demeanor: “I haven’t been lying the whole time! There was that initial lie and then I never bothered to tell you the truth.”) Jaye, dropping off her laundry and not intending to stay for breakfast, is roped into the situation when her parent’s ceramic cow-creamer urges her to stay for a pancake, which she does with great reluctance. And it turns out to be one of those muse directions that feels like sabotage rather than support, as keeping Yvette in the kitchen for a few more minutes puts her in the hands of immigration officials and on a bus back to Toronto. It’s a move that leaves Jaye feeling guilty in addition to being frazzled—a mood that gets even worse when the cow’s soothing voice goes on a loop and encourages her to “Bring her home!”


Jaye’s continual mental breakdown in the face of the muses intruding into her life has been one of the most interesting arcs to follow in the early episodes, and now the plot thickens as for the first time someone’s noticing it beyond writing it off as Jaye being Jaye—i.e. deliberately antisocial and weird. Aaron, glimpsing her almost terrifyingly desperate expressions and one-sided conversations that seem to be motivated by either farm animals or condiments, pushes her to tell him what’s going on. She continues to deflect by calling on their sibling closeness (“I expect the entitled invasion of privacy by Mom and Dad and whats-her-name, but not from you”), but is at least willing to let him join him for a trip north to Canada to follow the cow-creamer’s direction and return with Yvette.

As I mentioned in my review of “Wax Lion,” Lee Pace was brought in to replace Adam Scott as Aaron after the pilot was shot, a move that can often derail a show in the early going as it tries to adjust or modify a character. Consequently Aaron’s been less present in the show than other Tyler family members in the first few episodes, an omission that’s added to the show’s makeshift structure. However, his scenes in “Wound-Up Penguin” were a positive indication that the writers are finding the character’s voice, and here he continues to find his place in the show’s crazy world. While on Pushing Daisies Pace’s Ned deliberately avoided conflict and contact—his trademark move was to stand hands-in-pockets and dart away from things, afraid of touching and reviving anything—Aaron’s far more assertive, with a snide attitude and skepticism about his chosen profession that slots nicely between Sharon’s career ambition and Jaye’s utter disinterest.


And this attitude means he’s able to put himself in direct conflict with Jaye in a way others won’t, taking advantage of the two being trapped in a car to call her out: “You wear your trailer park hillbilly lifestyle around your neck like a wreath of garlic. Are you trying to ward us off?” It’s a sign of the regard—or at least tolerance—that Jaye holds her brother in that she’s willing to be straightforward, admitting that she can’t stand the fact that everyone cares so much when she can barely care at all. In “Wax Lion” and “Karma Chameleon” she behaved as if she was merely inconvenienced by her family, and in those few brief sentences Caroline Dhavernas betrays something else, a repressed pain that she can’t feel the connection to them that should ostensibly be easy. It’s an emotional and earnest moment—one that the show then subverts as they recognize the tension and slide back into sibling bickering: “I thought we had an unspoken agreement never to get into each others’ business.” “I never said that!” “That’s why it’s unspoken, dumbass!”

The Tyler siblings locate Yvette in fairly quick fashion—Aaron’s elaborate search plan is hilariously rendered moot when Jaye sees her right outside the station—and despite a Return Of The Jedi-themed cocoon in the car trunk, Yvette refuses to endanger the children she practically raised. After offering to drive her to a hotel, the cow-creamer chimes back in with “Right on red!” directions, and Jaye’s frayed nerves are literally pushed to the breaking point as she takes a turn on a wrong way street. Tones shift along with gears as the car weaves in and out, barely missing several pedestrians, and winding up on a front lawn. A front lawn that turns out to be none other than Yvette’s, her stunned parents embracing her and proving wrong her long-time claims of being an orphan. (Pace and Dhavernas steal the episode with their interactions, but their best ones are in response to this reveal: “I thought they were supposed to be dirt poor. These people aren’t even French!” “Or dead!”)


Once again, this subtly twists the direction of the muses around to reverse effect, although “Bring her home” has less of a raw emotional effect than “Bring her back to him” did last week. And it’s still a reveal that hits home, because the truth of the situation—that Yvette (or Cindy rather) was a runaway whose parents were so emotionally cold she couldn’t bear it—strongly ties together Jaye’s problems with one of the people she’s helping. Jaye may find the “constant interest” of her parents maddening, but at least she has the option of accepting or rejecting it, and seeing the Bradleys barely interact with their long-lost daughter is almost too much to handle.

The “almost” part of that is removed once the cow-creamer won’t stop its suggestions, which gets to another of the show’s tonal quirks. Wonderfalls is a charming and lively show, but it’s also a show where the main character rightly thinks she might be insane, and every so often it snaps. Here that snapping takes the form of Jaye running to the car—still on the lawn—locking the doors and screaming at the cow-creamer as the Bradleys and Aaron get into a shouting match of their own. And it gets even crazier when Mr. Bradley throws a punch at Aaron, it snaps Jaye out of her rut, she attacks him in return and brings Yvette/Cindy with them. That tension keeps the action pulled tight for the rest of the Canada adventure, breaths held and grins fixed as the flashlight moves over them at the border. It then takes us back to the beginning and snaps into noir police mode as the car is stopped by a roadblock, and Sharon emerges from the car (“all back-lit and evil-smoking” as Jaye puts it) to watch her siblings get dragged off to jail in slow motion.


Once again, as in “Wound-Up Penguin,” the episode turns out to be resolved by a twist out of left field, this one so subtle that the episode literally rewinds all the way back to the scene where Darrin refuses to help—a directorial flourish that’s noticeable, but less jarring given the overall kinetic pace of the episode’s editing. All episode Jaye and Aaron are pointing out that Yvette practically raised them, and Darrin’s the only one looking at the other side of the equation: Yvette being with their family for 20 years means they practically raised her as well. He makes a few phone calls and writes a few checks, garnering amnesty for both Jaye and Yvette/Cindy, and turns that constant interest Jaye found so smothering right back on her. “First principle is always family. You take care of them first.” And then, the episode embraces the idea fully with a closing scene that would be at home on a family drama from The WB, Jaye finally giving in and staying for breakfast. (A breakfast she can have in relative peace and quiet, with Aaron having “accidentally” broken the head off the cow-creamer.)

I said at the start of this review that “Crime Dog” was even more experimental than the first few Wonderfalls episodes, and it’s almost appropriate that the show was canceled before Fox aired it because I have no idea how they’d advertise it. At random points it’s a police procedural, a road trip comedy, a family drama and a psychological fantasy—a mishmash of tones and tropes that any network would have trouble buying in a meeting. So again, I can understand why they would cancel it, but I have to hate them for doing so. Because the funny thing about this melange approach? Against all odds, it works spectacularly well.


Stray observations:

  • Lots of praise for Pace and Dhavernas, but Katie Finneran was similarly terrific. Sharon was beset on all sides for her praise of immigration laws and regularly dubbed a horrible person, yet she was still able to pull off a femme fatale vibe in the interrogation room and genuine hurt and concern at Jaye’s attitude during her plight. Her weary “You’re my sister” had every bit as much emotion as Jaye’s talk with Aaron.
  • Wasilewski is a well-known television and voice actor—her credits include Peggy’s sister on Mad Men and Margie’s neighbor on Big Loveand she’s also another regular Fullerverse resident as she played the psychotic charity worker on the Pushing Daisies season one finale. Between her fate there and Aidan Devine’s character on Hannibal, it seems Wonderfalls alums can count on Fuller giving them far nastier roles the next time around.
  • While Jaye has a good grasp of films, she’s apparently never seen any of the six Law And Orders on the air and can’t keep from “squealing” in the interrogation. Though she has evidently seen enough of The X-Files to compare Sharon to the Cigarette-Smoking Man.
  • Speaking of Jaye and popular culture, if she’d read more of the P.G. Wodehouse canon she’d have known from the start that cow-creamers are nothing but trouble. A silver one in the possession of his Uncle Travers landed Bertie Wooster into no fewer than three hilarious mixups.
  • Best Caroline Dhavernas expression this week: Toss-up between the facial contortions when she’s being interrogated and the fixed grin on her face when going through customs.
  • I’m hoping for many more Jaye and Aaron interactions in episodes to come, because Dhavernas and Pace have a great sibling chemistry and play expertly with the dialogue. “Can you imagine if the baby Jesus killed Mom and Dad?” “That would suck.” “I’d be devastated! My life would never be the same. And you know Sharon’s gonna throw herself on Dad’s coffin when it goes into the ground.”
  • “Furious Canadians. Does that even work?” Clearly Jaye’s never seen The A.V. Club’s Myles McNutt when someone conflates the terms recap and review in front of him.
  • “Oblique. That is the word you spell.” And what an appropriate word for Wonderfalls it is.

Next week: Did you notice Yvette/Cindy call Jaye a saint this week and how uncomfortable it made her? Well, “Muffin Buffalo” has plenty more of that as the muses are making Jaye look better than she ever wanted to.