“Wax Lion” (season one, episode one; originally aired 3/12/2004)
“So we got Poor Bitch and his ring, which led us to the quarter, which led us to the purse, which was empty. Is that supposed to mean something? Is it a metaphor? Are you Satan? Are you God? If you don’t say anything in the next five seconds I’m going to assume you’re Satan. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, four-Mississippi… Oh my God. I’m a crazy person.”—Jaye Tyler, “Wax Lion”
It’s hard not to look at Bryan Fuller’s career and feel sorry for the way things have turned out. As a showrunner, his résumé is littered with a considerable amount of failures, and failures that turned out that way through no fault of his own. Critically acclaimed shows he’s created like Pushing Daisies start out strong and taper off midway through, while creative difficulties led him to depart shows like Heroes and Dead Like Me. (Though there is a certain degree of schadenfreude to be felt, as once he leaves a show it tends to spiral out of control, as those show’s later seasons were—putting it charitably—mildly disastrous.) The 2012-13 television season has had some stark examples of that trend, as his Munsters reboot Mockingbird Lane didn’t make it past the pilot stage and his current show Hannibal is a critical darling, but one that lived on the bubble longer than any other network show and only earned a renewal by the skin of its teeth.
Fuller’s projects tend to fail because they’re the sort of works that are too out there for mainstream audiences, and yet they’re exactly the sort of projects that gain a small but devoted following—a following of which I’m proud to be a member. Fuller’s work is distinguished by an odd marriage of aesthetics, a sense of whimsy and wonder that’s balanced out with a fascination with death. His writing and plots have an almost lyrical quality to them, a fondness for alliteration and imagery that at times goes beyond the pale—the various corpses on Hannibal and Pushing Daisies speak to that. Fittingly for this temperament, for whatever roadblocks he’s encountered, he’s always able to bounce back and try something new. Following Fuller’s unceremonious exit from Dead Like Me, he teamed up with two other equally talented individuals: director Todd Holland (Malcolm In The Middle and The Larry Sanders Show) and writer Tim Minear(Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel).
From this superstar tag team of showrunners came Wonderfalls, which debuted on Fox in the spring in 2004. Greeted by the media as part of the crop of post-Buffy shows featuring strong female protagonists with mystical inclinations—in addition to Dead Like Me, the 2003-04 season saw CBS’ Joan Of Arcadia and Fox’s Tru Calling—Wonderfalls was also acclaimed by critics as one of the most promising new shows of the season. And like all promising new shows of any season, it was barely watched, mistreated by the network as timeslots were shifted and episodes aired out of order, and the axe fell on it after only four episodes. It was gone in the blink of an eye, a show that left so quickly everyone who followed could only ask regretfully what could have been.
Written by Fuller and directed by Holland, the Wonderfalls pilot “Wax Lion” bears the creative imprints of both of its parents. It feels like a combination of Holland’s work on Twin Peaks and Fuller’s work on Dead Like Me, creating a seemingly normal world on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls shot through with various stylistic deviations and oddities. Cutaway scenes, random slow-motion, and click-transition edits color the mundane activities surrounding this tourist attraction, accentuated by a score that at times takes its cues from lighter pop, traditional African/Middle Eastern music and Angelo Badalamenti-style jazz. The opening scene sets the tone right away, depicting a version of the “Maid in the Mist” legend starring flea market offerings. A View-Master editing style circles through the scenes before transitioning into a lampshade in motion, which sends a Native American chief’s daughter over the falls into a CGI mouth. It’s unique, yes, but it’s not the overly dazzling kind of unique you get from pilots with broader production budgets like Pushing Daisies or Mockingbird Lane. And while I love both, part of me prefers this simpler style, as the lower budget and Holland’s sensibilities hold back the extremes of the Fuller sensibility, which can verge on tiring.
The narrator of this opening scene—and the center of the show’s world—is Jaye Tyler, a disenchanted clerk at the Wonderfalls gift shop who’s living up to her high-school yearbook promise to be “overeducated and unemployable.” A 24-year-old philosophy graduate of Brown University, she has chosen the path of least resistance, not even able to work up the energy to do anything other than chew her peanut-butter sandwich angrily when she’s passed over for assistant manager position in favor of high school “mouth-breather” Alec. “You’re spiteful in a way that the definition of spiteful doesn’t quite prepare you for,” says her best friend Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), a waitress at the local bar. Jaye, on the other hand, sees her course of action as a solution to skip ahead of the perceived drudgery of her more affluent and successful family: “They all work really hard every day and they’re dissatisfied. I mean, I can be dissatisfied without hardly working at all.”
And here we get our central reason to watch: Caroline Dhavernas’ performance as Jaye. Dhavernas has been largely absent from American television since Wonderfalls went off the air, popping up on the short-lived Off The Map before reuniting with Fuller for Hannibal—but what she does here makes me wish she was a more frequent presence. She falls between the other female protagonists of Fuller’s shows, and it’s a mix that works—the disdainful qualities of George Lass without the sullen unpleasantness, the wide-eyed expressiveness of Charlotte Charles without the Manic Pixie Dream Girl-esque quality. Jaye feels like a real person, someone firmly rooted in the unambitious mid-20s, doubts and fears about growing up sublimated underneath a thick coat of sarcasm. And she’s not incapable of emotion either—when The Barrel’s new bartender Eric (Tyron Leitso) tells the story of how his sheet-obsessed wife bedded the bellboy on their honeymoon, she slides him the shot he just bought her without a word. There’s a potential meeting of kindred spirits as he tells her about abandoning his life in New Jersey: “I’m pretty sure they’re gonna fire me if I don’t show up.” “That’s awesome.”
Jaye’s self-proclaimed commitment to mediocrity is upset when a customer returns a defective wax lion from the shop’s Make-A-Mold machine, and what seems like a simple complaint turns into a near-spiritual experience when the slightly smushed lion tilts his head up to the clerk and advises her not to give the customer her money back—advice proven true when the customer is robbed immediately after setting foot outside of the shop. This triggers what will be the two best elements of the pilot, the depiction of the inanimate objects—identified as “muses” by Fuller and Holland on the DVD commentary track—and the looks on Jaye’s face as they keep trying to get her attention. The understated muse animation and Dhavernas’ reactions—bored expressions twisting into shock and horror (and later annoyance)—make a winning combination, as the muses prod Jaye with a series of cryptic statements such as “Ask him about the ring, the one he doesn’t wear” and “See a penny, pick it up” until she responds to their hints. And when she refuses to do so, they channel Michigan J. Frog in a series of ragtime songs and nursery rhymes to either deprive her of sleep or make everyone around her think she’s crazy for hissing at inanimate objects. Her family—sister Sharon (Katie Finneran), brother Aaron (Lee Pace), father Darrin (William Sadler), and mother Karen (Diana Scarwid)—half-heartedly try to help her deal with the shock after she passes out from the first experience, but all this does is give her another muse in the form of her mother’s therapist’s bronze monkey bookend, which she steals because it tells her to.
Jaye finally gives into the muses’ daily nagging, asking the local delivery man Thomas about why he no longer wears his ring, leading him to talk about his divorce and leave the shop sobbing. (Jaye is, unsurprisingly, unsympathetic. “Poor bitch.”) But they’re not done with her yet: It’s not cause-and-effect they’re geared toward; the muses are more like cogs in a metaphysical Rube Goldberg device. They push Jaye toward one goal for the purpose of triggering the next one, which leads to the next clue, and so on. The nature of the goal is left up to Jaye, who suffers a series of indignities, first fishing a gleaming quarter out of the Maid of the Mist fountain, then recovering the quarter from the trash, and then getting punched by the Wonderfalls customer whose purse she finds in the trash. Hilariously, Mahandra, being the sort of best friend who can cut through bullshit, picks up on the most important part of Jaye’s actions: “Why were you performing an act of kindness?”
The act does, however, have the consequence of reuniting her with Sharon, a type-A attorney who bails her sibling out of jail in spite of some long-standing sisterly resentment. When Sharon and Karen show up to Wonderfalls the next day to ask for the return of the bronze monkey—her theft uncovered because Dr. Ron started taping all his sessions after a patient tried to stab herself and blame him—Sharon strikes up a brief conversation with Thomas, and the lion whispers “Make me a match” in what turns out to be phase two of the muse’s scheme.
After a sleepless night—less because she’s agonizing over what to do and more because the lion won’t stop singing about “Sharon and Poor Bitch sitting in a tree”—she pages her sister four times to meet her for dinner. Sharon’s understandably suspicious given that Jaye asked six other people to bail her out of jail, and she’s right to be so as Jaye immediately bombards her with questions. Again, Dhavernas’ versatility is on display as she moves from sweet (“Didn’t you think he was cute?”) to annoyed (“Why didn’t you think he was cute?!”) in less than five seconds. Once Thomas arrives, she quickly abandons the two to an uncomfortable dinner—and it’s here that we get the pilot’s big reveal, which Sharon blurts out in a desperate attempt to save his feelings: “I’m a lesbian. The reason I’m not attracted to you is because your genitals are on the outside.”
Thomas is taken aback by this revelation, and even more because the salad he’s eating contains peanuts, triggering an allergic reaction that inflates his throat to the size of a grapefruit. What follows is a frenetic rush to the hospital, Jaye and Sharon forced to team up as lively jazz takes over the soundtrack plays, and the two realize they need to perform emergency surgery (“Is he breathing?” “I don’t think so!” “Maybe we should trach him! Do you have a pen? Fine-tipped or ballpoint?”). Thankfully, he gets to the hospital just in time, where his ex-wife stops by to check on him—and the reason for their divorce becomes clear as she and Sharon can’t take their eyes off each other, to Jaye’s disbelief. (We also learn from the helpful doctor that the medium-point Bic Round Stick is the preferred pen for emergency tracheotomies. The more you know.)
Jaye leaves Thomas to what soon becomes the sort of sponge bath you only see on Cinemax after hours, only to find her sister smoking on her bed, Sharon having broken into her trailer and refusing to wait in the SUV because there’s a kid outside eating Spaghetti-Os from a can who won’t stop staring at her. Sharon’s happy that the sister she earlier suggested should be put down is actually showing some interest in her, yet—like Mahandra—she can’t believe it’s genuine. In Dhavernas’ strongest moment of the pilot, she leans back and seriously confides in her sister for the first time in years, finding a moment of contentment amidst the confusion as she tries to sort out what’s happened:
“I don’t know what’s going on with me. I feel like a pinball. I’ve been bouncing off bumpers and flippers tryin’ to get something to happen but I had no idea what it was. And then all of a sudden, there’s a tracheotomy, and you’re a lesbian and there’s this other lesbian and… I was just trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do, but they didn’t tell me what it was: They just kept on making me guess.”
And at the end of the pilot, we’re still left guessing to an extent as to what these muses want out of her. They seem to be a force for good—not only do they push Thomas, his wife, Sharon, and the nurse to literal happy endings, they seem to be doing something good for Jaye as she connects with her sister for the first time in years and gets a quiet smile on her face at seeing Thomas happy. (Then again it’s only a temporary fix, as once a stuffed bear offers the next “See a penny, pick it up” she’s back to hissing at it, grabbing it to shut it up, and running after a woman with toilet paper on her shoe.) Do the muses have souls, as Mahandra suggests? Are they looking out for Jaye’s best interests? Are they trying to affect social change using her as their puppet? Or are they entities just as bored as she is with hanging around in a gift shop all day, having fun at her expense?
Whatever their intentions, one things is clear: They’re going to drag Jaye wherever they want her to go, kicking and screaming all the way.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s coverage of Wonderfalls! I’m thrilled to be discussing this show with you on my first time through the series—I’ve heard so many good things about it over the years that I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. I’ll be doing the full series run, with one episode per week.
- For those who want to follow along, the series is unfortunately not streaming anywhere but is available on DVD. While Fox pulled the plug after only four episodes, efforts from the creators and a small but dedicated fan community (whose website SaveWonderfalls.com is still online in an interesting bit of save-our-show campaign archaeology) managed to get the studio to release all 13 episodes.
- According to DVD commentary, there were some casting changes early on for the series: Adam Scott played Aaron and Kerry Washington played Mahandra in the original pilot, but both had to leave the show because they couldn’t commit to future episodes. Sadly this unaired pilot doesn’t exist as a DVD extra, so it’s left to the imagination how Henry Pollard and Olivia Pope would function as Jaye’s brother and best friend, respectively. (Update: Thanks to commenter You_promised for letting me know the original pilot is available on YouTube.)
- While Holland’s direction guides most of the episode, there is a beautiful Fuller-esque shot early in the episode as the wax pours into the machine to create the smushed-face lion.
- Next time I’m late to an event, I’m totally saying it was because someone was telling me the most interesting story about pirates.
- The best interaction of the episode, following Jaye’s “’sode”: Darrin: “Sweetheart, when’s the last time you had an orgasm?” Sharon: “That sound you hear is stunned silence.” Darrin: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of! Millions of people have orgasms every day.” Jaye: “Not ashamed. Mortified.”
- Eric: “I walked out of that honeymoon suite, into this bar, and cried for three days until someone gave me a job.” Does that work? I need to try that instead of updating my resume.
- Jaye: “I guess I thought if I could just get my sister laid, the little wax lion might just shut up.” It certainly sounds like a logical course of events to me.
- Jaye could see herself doing another girl if they were in prison and there weren’t any other guys around, especially if the girl was Drew Barrymore.
- “Life can be sort of peaceful when you stop struggling.” “It’s kinda like drowning that way.”
Next week: We’ll be sticking to the DVD order—rather than the order in which the episodes aired—so up next is “Pink Flamingos,” the fourth episode to air but the second one produced.