Of all the supernatural gifts bestowed on small screen heroines, the one granted to Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is both the strangest and the most mundane. In Wonderfalls, she doesn’t chat with dead people or receive messages from God, she’s not saddled with an ancient prophecy. Instead, tacky souvenir shop animal figures talk to her, sending her on tiny journeys into the emotional lives of strangers and family members.
At 24 years old, Jaye is a tourist in her own life, judging without participating or accepting responsibility. Appropriately, she works in a Niagara Falls gift shop, whiling away the hours staring into space or scowling at customers. A dedicated underachiever, Jaye has created a situation in which she is wholly unchallenged. As a bonus, her lackluster career and personal life aggravates her well-to-do family: “She lives in a trailer park. Clearly she’s disturbed,” says her brother Aaron (Lee Pace). She’s also the unlikeliest of tv heroines, cranky and decidedly unplucky. As she tells a friend about her family, “They all work really hard and are dissatisfied. I can be dissatisfied without hardly working at all.”
Jaye unwillingly begins to examine her life when she is passed over for a promotion, her new boss a teenage “mouth breather” (Neil Grayston). She fumes over her pb-and-j next to a fountain statue of a Native American princess whose spirit (according to local legend) protects Niagara Falls. The princess’ story sets up the show’s theme: sacrificed to save her people and “surrendered to destiny,” she went willingly over a waterfall in a canoe. Jaye, likewise, must learn to “go with the flow” and accept her destiny when it comes calling.
Fate intervenes when Jaye experiences a mini death-and-rebirth: she chokes and falls gasping to her knees, managing to dislodge the bite of sandwich from her throat just as a stranger drops a quarter. Jaye chucks the quarter over her shoulder, it bounces off the statue, knocks her in the head, and finally plops into the water, where it glows mysteriously.
Soon after, Jaye receives her first directive. A pompous and malformed wax lion (voiced by Scotch Ellis Loring) pushes her into action, when it insists that she refuse to refund an unpleasant customer’s money. Because the instruction comes from an inanimate object, but also because she avoids messy human interaction at all costs, Jaye pays up, whereupon the customer’s purse is stolen as soon as she steps out the door. “Told you,” the lion winks, and Jaye faints dead away.
Though she supposed to be helping people, Jaye’s purpose isn’t precisely altruistic. Her journey is more personal than those undertaken by other gifted tv girls, to save herself by developing connections with others. Her fainting episode (or “‘sode,” as the mouth breather describes it to Jaye’s mother) forces contact with her estranged family. Jaye’s clearly an outsider (her family’s names: Darrin, Karen, Sharon, and Aaron). Even so, her well-coifed mother (Diana Scarwid) rounds them all up at Jaye’s trailer. Physically removing herself from an emotional situation, Jaye calls “I’m fine! All better now!” from behind a tied-shut bedroom door. “You’re not fine. You had a ‘sode,” her mother counters primly. “Honey, when is the last time you had an orgasm?” asks her father (William Sadler). Her sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) concludes, “I think we should have her put down” and Jaye glares at the wax lion, blaming it for bringing such chaos into her previously safe and quiet life.
But Jaye hasn’t seen anything yet. Her animal friends lead her on various treasure hunt-lke adventures, each of which involves uncomfortable emotional interaction and leads her in an unexpected direction: she sets her sister up on a date with a soppy, divorced “EPS” man, whom Jaye dubs “poor bitch,” only to learn that Sharon’s a lesbian. In the course of her journeys, Jaye stays pissy and self-involved (“The universe is conspiring against me,” she tells cute bartender Eric (Tyron Leitso). “Not just the Milky Way or planet Earth?” he responds). But she also starts to realize that other people are more than mere annoyances: they have secrets and inner lives of their own.
At its most effective, Wonderfalls centers on Jaye’s belated emotional maturation. When she visits her mother’s shrink, he notes the tension between her and Sharon, asking Jaye if she ever tells her sister she loves her. “I don’t know how things were with your family,” Jaye tells him, “but that’s not the way we were brought up.” A monkey figurine on the therapist’s desk, however, sees a different truth. It cranes its neck to look up at her and parrots, “I love you,” at which point Jaye snatches it up for her collection. The monkey keeps at her until she relents and says the words to her sister herself. “I love you, too,” Sharon responds. Jaye realizes aloud, “I don’t feel dirty. I thought I’d feel dirty.”
Jaye’s adventures don’t save lives or the world, they lead to tiny shifts in her perspective. Until now, she’s relied on avoidance to solve problems (“What happens when you repress something?” her best friend (Tracie Toms) prompts. “It goes away?” Jaye responds hopefully.) But now the rules have changed. When she ignores something, it no longer goes away. So Wonderfalls’ grouchy heroine surrenders like the noble princess. In the pilot’s final scene, a stuffed bear sends her after another person-in-need and she sighs, grabs the bear, and tears out the door, crankily shouting, “Hey lady! I think I’m supposed to help you!”