Dead Like Me vs. Wonderfalls

Dead Like Me castThe pilots of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls warrant an old-fashioned, English class compare-and-contrast. Both were created by Bryan Fuller, who has a clearly defined style and a cult following. Despite being a consulting producer on the awesome first season of Heroes, Fuller seems to have earned a reputation as the creator of brilliant but cancelled shows.

Each of these two shows could be called a “genre” show. Or as an acquaintance of mine put it, “the kind of show that people who go to ComicCon like.” Their premises required a strong suspension of disbelief, which probably would have been strained over the course of three, four, five seasons. (Just look at Heroes. How many times is the world going to need saving, for Christ’s sake?)

Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls both feature young, smart, misanthropic, take-no-shit, female protagonists with male-sounding names. By the ends of their respective pilots, both George of D.L.M. and Jaye of Wonderfalls have acquired super powers. Okay, powers. Neither of them understands why she was chosen to wield these dubious abilities.

Jaye is given assignments by inanimate animals come-to-life. George is tasked with helping souls leave the bodies people who die in grisly accidents. Both start off “refusing the call,” a step in the hero’s journey, but find that acceptance is not optional. Each has the Gen-Y apathetic thing down pat. The pilots find Jaye using her degree from Brown to work an hourly retail job, and George, a college drop-out, grudgingly accepting a job at a temp agency.

Both shows introduce casts of relative unknowns, with the exception being Mandy Patinkin in D.L.M. The supporting characters are all pretty flawed, but you might say the ones on Wonderfalls have more redeeming qualities. Those on D.L.M., being dead, have no incentive to overcome their narcissism, substance abuse issues, or general assholery. (Not that they’re not likeable.) Even George’s parents, still alive, are jerks. This is a good place to mention that each protagonist is completely misunderstood by her upper middle-class parents.

Each show opens with a legend; the Maid of the Mist and the frog that unleashed death. Both skirt religion despite having supernatural themes. (George mentions god in the legend, but specifies that it’s with a lower case “g.”) Both shows achieve, somehow, a moral middle ground. We end each pilot wondering whether the transferring of souls or the obedience to talking chotzkies is good or bad. There are no villains, and our heroes aren’t particularly heroic. Things just are as they are. Destiny. Maybe that is why these shows didn’t generate sufficient viewer interest. People like black and white.

Both shows have a “look” that I don’t know enough about television technology to explain properly. Something about the lighting and camera work reminds you that you’re not dealing with Desperate Housewives.

Now for a few differences. D.L.M. uses a New Kid on the Block approach, where the world of the show (death) already exists, and the character is introduced to it along with the audience. Since the character is clueless, everything can be explained without making the script feel too heavy with exposition. Wonderfalls jumps right in. Something changes in the life of the protagonist on this particular day, and we don’t know why it happens when it does. We don’t understand what is happening any more than she does. You have to stick with Wonderfalls for a while to figure it out, a quality I personally enjoy in a show.

D.L.M. had the advantage of being on cable. You just know both of these protagonists have potty mouths, but only George gets the satisfaction of throwing the “f” word around. And it’s so damn dark. The pilot finds George having to reap a kindergardener. A kindergardener. Yet, amidst all the death—the body count is at least 5 in this one episode—the pilot ends on a hopeful note. In death, George may find a way to make peace with her family and her identity.

Memorable quote: “I excel at not giving a shit.” – George

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Wonderfalls

WonderfallsWonderfalls aired for just four weeks in spring 2004. So clever, so misunderstood; much like the show’s heroine. It was created by Bryan Fuller, the man behind Dead Like Me.

We open with the legend of the “Maid of the Mist,” a Native American Princess who sacrificed herself to Niagara Falls to satisfy an angry god. This tale of destiny will become a theme of sorts. The story is recounted by protagonist Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas), an apathetic, 24-year-old sales clerk at a gift shop at the falls.

Next, we have the convenient plot device of an old high school classmate dropping by. This gives the audience the chance to learn that Jaye was uncool in high school, majored in Philosophy in college, and has wound up “over-educated and unemployable.”

We get to the show’s premise when a tiny wax lion figurine come to life and talks to Jaye. She faints, and soon her WASPy family swoops in to shunt her off to a shrink. At the shrink’s office, a monkey-shaped bookend follows suit with the lion figure.

And, we’re off. Inanimate objects talk to this chick. We’re never told exactly why—in the pilot or ever. Is she crazy? Gifted? A modern version of the Maid of the Mist? Dr. Dolittle meets Joan of Arc? Do these talking things want her to commit good or evil? We keep watching to figure it out. It’s all so weird, and coupled with the snarky dialogue, this makes for engaging viewing. 

The love interest character, Eric (Tyron Leito, lately of Being Erica), has an intriguing back story, too. He has run away from his cheating new wife to hide behind a bar in Niagara Falls. Will he go home? Will his wife track him down? Will he fall for Jaye? More importantly, will she fall for him, or will she be too distracted by her newfound powers/psychosis?

The look of this show is great. Shot on location, it feels very real and unglamorized. You can practically feel the damp, cold weather. The grey backdrop makes the animated figures and shlocky, colorful souvenir shop pop.

By the end of the pilot, Jaye loses a promotion to a mouth-breathing dork, gets yelled at by a customer, makes a UPS guy cry and later, almost kills him, gets arrested for disorderly conduct, is busted stealing from the shrink, and has her mother advise her to “do something” with her hair. It’s a pretty shitty week. Some good comes out of it; Jaye has a bonding moment with her polar opposite sister, and begins to accept was is apparently her destiny.

People love an underdog. Especially one with smarts and a matching smart mouth. It all makes Jaye a great character and her journey a fun one. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The premise was probably too far-fetched to be sustainable beyond one season, anyway.

Here’s the UNAIRED pilot.