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Wonderfalls (2004)

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Like Defying Gravity, Wonderfalls lasted only 13 episodes, but thanks to defensive writing by show creator Bryan Fuller, show runner Tim Minear, and executive producer Todd Holland, the show (also like Defying Gravity) tells a more or less self-contained story. Two other Bryan Fuller productions could easily have made this list, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies. He has now produced three of the most magical television fantasies of the past decade, none of which has managed to find enough of an audience to stay on the air more than two short seasons. One could make an argument that there is something profoundly wrong with the current television industry if shows as brilliant as these cannot find a network on which to thrive. Television simply does not get better than this.


Wonderfalls tells the story of Jaye, a recent Brown graduate who is underemployed as a gift shop employee in Niagara, New York (though anyone who has visited Niagara Falls will knows that the series is filmed on the Canadian side). One day a slightly malformed wax lion unexpectedly begins to talk to her and from that time on she receives messages from all manner of inanimate animals. Each episode sees Jaye obeying the inexorable and frequently baffling commands of the animals (if she doesn’t do what they command they torture her by endless droning of songs like “A Bicycle Built for Two” until she finally cracks and gives in) that force her to engage in behavior that not only alienates her from her friends but destroys her romantic prospects. Wax lions, cow creamers, plastic pink flamingos, cocktail bunnies on cardboard boxes, buffalos embroidered on aprons, and, most importantly, a brass monkey bookend that finally gives her some clues as to why they talk to her.


Along with the shenanigans of the animals, Jaye has to cope with her brother’s prying investigations. Played by Pushing Daisies’s Lee Pace (who starred as Ned the Pie Maker), brother Aaron is not certain what precisely is going on with Jaye, but he gains a fairly decent idea. Between her family and her slacker job and the trailer park she lives in and the unending weirdness surrounding her animal spirits, the show is an endless series of delights.


A segment of the pilot, “Wax Lion”.


 
Farscape (1999 - 2003)

Although it lasted for four seasons and extended to a miniseries that wrapped up the show’s main storylines (although creator Rockne O’Bannon is currently continuing the story in comic book form), Farscape has had until recently a checkered history on DVD. The original DVDs were among the most expensive in the relatively short history of the medium, the multi-volume box sets for each season listing for hundreds of dollars. Later there was a more reasonably priced (though still expensive) Starburst edition that unfortunately went out-of-print too quickly for many to have a chance to buy. Recently, however, A&E has brought out a new complete set that is as cheap as the others were expensive. The new Farscape set is, in fact, one of the great DVD bargains out there. Veteran fans of the show now have a reasonably priced set that they can recommend to would-be fans.


Farscape tells the adventures of American astronaut John Crichton, who while flying an experimental space craft in the Earth’s orbit is inadvertently sent through a wormhole to the other side of the galaxy. There he finds himself on a leviathan (a species of living spaceships) named Moya with her crew of escaped prisoners, all of whom are, like Crichton, trying to find their way home. Much of the action is driven by various factions attempting to extract from Crichton what he knows about wormholes in order to gain the military upper hand over their interstellar rivals. The series on one level is about Crichton and his friends as they run from ruthless adversaries like Scorpius, one of TV’s greatest villains, part James Bond bad guy, part reptilian vampire, part Phantom of the Opera.


But the heart of the show is the epic romance between Crichton and the alien hottie and former space Nazi Aeryn Sun. Their story is far and away the finest romance ever seen in sci fi, whether on TV or in movies or books, and is as tragic and compelling as any love story ever found on TV. John and Aeryn’s story in particular and the series as a whole reaches a crescendo in Season Three. The twists in that season are shocking and astonishingly original, and are guaranteed to break any sensitive viewer’s heart. In my opinion, Season Three of Farscape is one of the five or six greatest seasons of any series in the history of television, regardless of genre. The other seasons are not quite on the level of that season, but even so the result is a great SF series surpassed in overall quality only by Firefly and Battlestar Galactica.


Initially the series received much of its notoriety because of the use of Muppets (albeit highly sophisticated ancestors of Kermit and friends—the Henson Company was deeply involved in the show and intended it as a showcase for what could be done with puppetry). It was also the first SF series to take full advantage of CGI, using software packages that vastly outstripped those used, for instance on Babylon 5, and the effects on the show still hold up remarkably well. Farscape is a great series that will appeal not merely to fans of sci fi, but to anyone who loves quality television.


After flying through a wormhole and into a space battle, John Crichton finds himself on Moya with a strange group of aliens. Definitely not in Kansas.


 
Party Down (2009 - present)

Of all the shows listed here, Party Down is the only one currently in first run, but because the vast majority of viewers do not have access to Starz, where it appears, seeing the show on DVD will be the only option for many. And it is definitely an option that should be exercised. Party Down is the flipside of Entourage, focusing on a group of would-be actors, writers, or entrepreneurs who are still struggling to get their first break. Created in part by Veronica Mars’s creator Rob Thomas, the show is littered from beginning to end with veterans from that show. Virtually every VM regular appears in Party Down as either a regular or a guest star (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars herself, appears in the season finale and is rumored to be back in Season Two), and even many who were one-time guest stars on the earlier show appear as guest stars on this one.


Each episode focuses on an event for which Party Down Catering has been hired, giving us a fresh platform for comedy each week as well as a gradual way of getting to know each of the characters. None of the Party Down employees seem destined for success in Hollywood, either in or outside the film industry. Ron Donald (Ken Marino, who played the seedy private eye Vinnie Van Lowe on Veronica Mars), the manager, yearns to own his own fast food franchise, and his ambitions are perhaps the most realistic of the group. Well, perhaps Henry’s (Adam Scott) goals are realistic because easily obtained, but only because he has given up, having abandoned all hope for an acting career after his lone achievement: having a famous tagline in a commercial (“Are we having fun yet?”). He and Casey (Lizzy Caplan) share a mutual attraction, though she still hopes to have a career.


The funniest person on the show in Season One will sadly not be back—at least not fulltime—in Season Two. Jane Lynch left to garner a Golden Globe nomination for Glee, but on Party Down she stood out as a veteran of B-films and lots and lots of parties. The highpoint of the first season may have been when a Russian mobster in awe tells her of seeing a beautiful woman (Lynch) in a movie, marveling how beautiful she was and how deeply the entire scene affected him. Mouth agape, both shocked and amazed, Lynch marvels, “You saw Dingleberries?”


Party Down: Season One releases 6 April 2010 in the US on DVD.


The wonderful Season One promo.


“You saw Dingleberries?” “A hundred times.”

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