By John Crooks
If you thought Joan of Arcadia was testy, wait until you meet Jaye of Niagara Falls.
In the wonderful "Wonderfalls," the fresh and instantly addictive comedy-fantasy series Fox introduces on Friday, March 12, Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is, like the title character in CBS' "Joan of Arcadia," a disaffected young woman who finds herself the reluctant focal point of something greater than herself.
Jaye is no dummy -- she graduated from Brown with a degree in philosophy, after all -- yet she feels like an oddball among the rest of her family of aggressive overachievers.
Karen (Diana Scarwid, "Mommie Dearest"), Jaye's mom, is a best-selling author of travel books such as "Thumbing Through the Finger Lakes"; Darrin (Bill Sadler), her dad, is a successful physician; Sharon, her older sister (Katie Finneran, "Bram and Alice"), is a respected immigration lawyer; brother Aaron (Lee Pace, "Soldier's Girl"), is "the youngest non-Asian to win the prestigious Fulton Scholarship for religious studies" and is, when we meet him, pursuing his doctorate in comparative religion (although he isn't sure he believes in God).
Jaye, on the other hand, has put herself in the "expectation-free zone" of Wonderfalls, the tourist gift shop in which she works, free to wallow in bitter boredom. That's when the animals start talking to her.
It starts with a tiny plastic lion from a vending machine, but soon Jaye is getting messages from stuffed animals, critters on logos, you name it. And when Jaye follows their usually cryptic instructions, someone's life is improved: Sharon's, in the pilot; a stranger, in many episodes, and even Jaye herself, especially in connection with Eric (Tyron Leitso), a local bartender nursing his own romantic trauma.
Created by Emmy-winning director Todd Holland ("Malcolm in the Middle") and Bryan Fuller ( "Dead Like Me," NBC's "Carrie" remake), "Wonderfalls" benefits from both Holland's kinetic visual style and optimistic world view as well as Fuller's sardonic edge and a keen talent for writing vivid female characters.
Viewers who are able to buy into the quirky concept at the heart of "Wonderfalls" are the ones who are most likely to love the show, since the FOX series isn't really about why this weird phenomenon has unexpectedly entered Jaye's life.
"Most reporters I've spoken with want very badly to understand what is happening to her, but the 'why' is really very unimportant," Dhavernas says. "That is just not the point of the show. The journey is how she will deal with this situation, and how it will change her life."
"What has been very really interesting about the focus groups is that women over 30 are kind of uneasy about Jaye," adds Fuller, the show's executive producer and co-creator. "They don't know whether she is crazy or not, so they don't know whether they have permission to laugh at or with her, because you don't laugh at the mentally ill.
"The men seem so much more willing to just go with it, to entertain that this is coming from something larger than herself. I mean, we see the results of her following these instructions and they turn out for the better for the people involved, so I think you should be able to argue fairly definitively that there is a higher power at work here."
While the pilot gives short shrift to Jaye's family, apart from Finneran's hilariously insecure Sharon, subsequent episodes take more advantage of the A-list talent hired for these roles.
Looking about 15 minutes older than she did back in 1981's "Mommie Dearest," Scarwid is priceless as a glamorous mom who genuinely loves her children whenever she thinks of it, while Sadler is the kind yet befuddled dad any manipulative child would kill for.
It's Jaye's two siblings who dominate the supporting cast, however. Finneran vacillates smoothly between warm and witchy as Sharon, while Pace, fresh off his acting honors in Showtime's "Soldier's Girl," comes unglued to great comic effect as the smug student whose own agnosticism is badly shaken by his growing awareness that something extraordinary is happening to his sister.
Actress Tracie Thoms has little to do as Jaye's best friend, Mahandra, but female viewers are bound to respond to Leitso, whose mostly levelheaded Eric is a welcome foil to Jaye's bizarre new situation.
"The relationship between Jaye and Eric is handled very truthfully, and I think that's what's amazing about the show as a whole," Dhavernas says. "You have all this comedy on the one hand, and it works very well, but then you have a very strong dramatic line as well. The writers make it possible for us to cross that line without a bump, and you begin to see it in other relationships as well, particularly with her family."
"We'll be doing longer arcs with the Jaye and Eric love story after the first
few episodes," Fuller adds. "That's another thing that separates us from 'Joan
of Arcadia,' I think. They're mainly a drama, or dramedy, while we are
definitely a romantic comedy."