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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wonderfalls: “Karma Chameleon”

Illustration for article titled Wonderfalls: “Karma Chameleon”
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Karma Chameleon” (season one, episode three; originally aired 3/19/2004)

“You've gotta choose people who aren't much more motivated than you are—but don't surround yourself with total narcissists. Otherwise, things start to be about something other than you.” – Jaye Tyler, “Karma Chameleon”

I’ve spent a lot of time in these first two reviews talking about the creative imprint of Bryan Fuller on Wonderfalls, but it’s important to remember that as good as Fuller is and as distinctive as his touches are, he’s only one of several voices working on the show. And after him, the most recognizable member of the Wonderfalls creative team is certainly Tim Minear. Among showrunners and television producers, Minear is famous for two things, the first being a résumé of shows with notoriously brief life spans: In addition to the four-episodes-and-out Wonderfalls, he’s been a creative lead on ABC’s Strange World (done after three), Fox’s The Inside (done after seven), Drive (done after four) and Firefly (done after 11). It’s a litany of failure that would could force anyone out of the business—and one even Minear wryly acknowledges with with his Twitter handle of  @CancelledAgain.

And Minear’s list of dead shows is all the more tragic because of his other noteworthy trait: the fact that he’s one of the best writers working in television today. Minear’s writing is distinguished by an keen interest in issues of identity and moral ambiguity, a black sense of humor that translates well into cutting dialogue, and a gift for writing flashback episodes that defy the format’s gimmicky premise and build legitimately moving character background. His writing credits are a murderers’ row of fantastic episodes of television considered some of the best of their respective series—Angel’s “Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…” and the entire “beige Angel” season two arc, Firefly’s “Out Of Gas,” Dollhouse’s “Omega” and “Belle Chose,” Terriers“Sins Of The Past,” to name only a few.

As such, I was incredibly excited to see Minear as the sole credited writer on the third episode “Karma Chameleon,” and hopeful that it would measure up to the other episodes. And does it? Well, much like the song that the episode takes its title from, it comes and goes (it comes and goes). A large part of this originates from the fact that Wonderfalls is still a show that’s in the process of finding itself—a tricky task for any show, let alone one trying to be comedy/drama/fantasy—and this episode feels tonally different than the first two installments. Minear’s bag of tricks is on full display, often to very great effect, but not all of them mesh with what we’ve seen in “Wax Lion” or “Pink Flamingos.”

A large part of that tonal difference is due to the fact that “Karma Chameleon” is a much darker episode of Wonderfalls, beginning with a Tyler family dinner to celebrate Karen’s new guide book. The first two episodes have portrayed Jaye as an outsider within her more driven family, and here there’s the first indication that the isolation bothers her more than she’s willing to let on. First, she’s left at the bottom of the family in the count of how many words dedicated to them on the back jacket (“I got five! And one of them is a digit”) and then left to get drunk at the bar when they have a fleet of excuses involving dissertations, court, and a Mercedes. Minear doesn’t cut the scenes with the same level of whimsy as Fuller does, leaving a sense of melancholy to Jaye’s solitude—which then allows the scene to extend to even more dramatic lengths, as a girl who bumped into her inside the bar is now snapping pictures of her from her van to an accompanying dramatic score.


Like any good stalker/potential killer, the girl shows up incognito the next day at Wonderfalls, returning Jaye’s wallet and introducing herself through a heavy stutter and a rack of novelty keychains as Bianca. Played by Sarah Drew (a veteran of Daria, since appearing in such roles as Kitty Romano in Mad Men and Dr. April Kepner in Grey’s Anatomy) Bianca is the tonal opposite of Gretchen Speck in “Pink Flamingos,” so meek and timid that Jaye seems like a dynamo personality-wise. Encouraged by a stuffed chameleon muse to help the girl “Get her words out,” Jaye helps her talk through her thick stutter and gets her a job at Wonderfalls. It’s adorable to see Jaye take a more active role, both in sharing the secrets to avoid the more soul-crushing aspects of retail and in taking legitimate joy in someone who might look up to her. “Please, I’m five-word-blurb girl who lives in a trailer.” “I live in a van.” “What are your feelings on beer?”

These good feelings last until the next morning, where it becomes clear that Bianca looks up to Jaye more than is healthy, adopting her hairstyle, dress sense, and “polite but detached” demeanor. Questions of identity run rampant through Minear’s work on Angel and Dollhouse, and he makes the most of this scenario by gradually ramping up Jaye’s discomfort and paranoia as Bianca becomes more and more of a doppel-Jäye-ger, so much so that even Darrin can’t tell at first glance. Both Drew and Caroline Dhavernas escalate their hostility well, glances growing increasingly icy the more the characters grow to resemble each other, particularly when the amiable Eric winds up between the two.


And the muses are no help; after being direct (if contradictory) last week, they’ve gone right back into cryptic territory, refusing to say any more than their first few words. In fact, they’re almost an afterthought to this episode, which works to its benefit because this allows “Karma Chameleon” to retain its more serious tone. Minear’s gift for black humor plays well here as he makes Jaye a more independent architect of her own destruction, first trying to locate Bianca’s family with a reluctant Sharon (“Does this girl even want a reunion? Her parents could be carnies!”) and then storming into the Barrel to yell at her and insult her stutter. It’s a scene ripe with cringe comedy as it’s slowly revealed that Bianca was actually trying to do something nice for her, switching Jaye into the villain in the eyes of all involved. And if that wasn’t enough, Minear moves the climax of the episode into a drama with shades of Hitchcock, as Jaye breaks into Bianca’s van and discovers a setup so professionally voyeuristic you’d expect Bianca to show up as one of the killers on Hannibal next season.

This approach works so well that the actual reveal of Bianca’s identity—she’s an investigative journalist who’s writing an article on millennial disaffection—comes across as a bit of a disappointment. Bianca’s explanation about why she’s chosen Jaye as her subject from “a cross-section of graduates who failed to contribute to society in any meaningful way” isn’t anything new from what we knew about the character. Her description of the Gen-Y profile is a speech that sounds exactly like the dry magazine pitch it is, but goes on too long and feels too on-the-nose for the show. Similarly, it feels like the plot beats repeat themselves once Jaye realizes the 5,000 words of the piece would wallop any dust jacket copy, and she invites Bianca to yet again pick her brain for disinterested material.


Thankfully, the episode recognizes its missteps and quickly goes back to Bianca being a crazy person. Her inability to start anything means that Jaye’s low-maintenance life seems like a paradise to her, and she takes every move to claim it for herself, first getting Jaye fired by leaving her notes at work and then seamlessly getting herself invited to the Tyler family pizza night. The latter is the culmination of all the unsettling pod-person vibes, Jaye finally snapping under those placid tones so similar to her own and trying to blurt out the truth, only to sound even crazier than a woman who talks to taxidermied fish and chameleon puppets on a daily basis. When she refuses to let Bianca even put a plate away and sends it shattering to the floor in a gorgeous shot, there’s a desperation to her performance that we haven’t seen before, almost Hitchcock in how much of a corner she feels she’s been backed into.

But as much as Minear might like to play around with his characters’ heads, he’s also a writer who knows when an upbeat ending is called for, and he finds the right way to play on all of of the episode’s ideas to make Jaye reclaim her life. After thinking on the words of the muses—aided by some kind words from Eric and a few shots of tequila—she realizes while she has no desire to move forward with her own life, she can at least give someone else a kick in the right direction. In an all-night writing session she applies her Ivy League education to stitch together everything she told Bianca into an article, sends it to the magazine, and then smoothly hands the other girl the acceptance letter with an explanation both can live with: “You’re going to take credit for something you didn’t do. You really can’t get more Gen-Y than that.”


And the episode ends in a nicely cyclical fashion—something Minear’s love of flashbacks often brings across—as we end on yet another family dinner, this one giving Jaye the praise she’s most comfortable with: The indirect kind. Jaye doesn’t quite know who she wants to be, but she at least knows she wants to be her. And if that means being remaining a work in progress for the foreseeable future, she’s perfectly happy to devote whatever words she gets to that.

Stray observations:

  • Structural signs the show has moved on from the pilot: The High And Dry trailer park is in an entirely different location, the interior of the Barrel is much more expansive, and the checkout counter of Wonderfalls has moved from the center to up against the wall.
  • Smushed-face wax lion sighting! As a resident of Jaye’s trailer, which she compares favorably to the inside of Jeannie’s bottle.
  • Best Caroline Dhavernas expression of the episode: The terminal eye-rolling over pizza night as Bianca talks about her ongoing journey of faith.
  • Jaye has now gotten into the habit of talking to the muses when they’re not even talking back. I sense many high jinks will ensue from this.
  • Best interaction of the episode goes to Jaye and Bianca fighting in the van: “You’re like that girl in that movie who wanted to be that other girl so much that she killed for it!” “Grease?” “Single White Female!”
  • Aaron’s honors include being “the youngest non-Asian to win the Fulton Scholarship for Religious Studies.”
  • Charity according to Jaye: “I can’t let you give me your last  $8! Here’s five back.”
  • Jaye: “I thought we could all go out clubbing.” Mahandra: “Baby seals?” Tracie Thoms is a master of the deadpan reply.
  • “I am not 35!” “And you’re not a lesbian either, but you can’t expect her to get every detail perfect.” My theory is that Karen is entirely aware of Sharon’s sexuality and simply enjoys messing with her daughters.

Next week: Jaye tries to help a nun with a crisis of faith in “Wound-Up Penguin” and is nearly at the receiving end of an exorcism. Could the show’s muse CGI be devoted to Caroline Dhavernas spewing vomit and defying the structure of neck vertebrae? I hope not.