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Voices carry
Wonderfalls doesn’t need a gimmick, but Cracking Up does

In TV programming, the following often holds true: one show with an offbeat premise is an original, two shows with the same premise are a coincidence, and three shows make a trend. Right now, there are three prime-time dramas about women who are guided by strange voices and visions.

On CBS’s Joan of Arcadia, a teenager is visited by God in the guise of ordinary folks who order her to perform various tasks; the meaning of these commands is never immediately apparent, but Joan ends up effecting small changes in the world around her. On Fox’s Tru Calling, a punky morgue attendant with time-traveling abilities hears the voices of people who died unnatural deaths pleading with her to go back 24 hours and prevent their demise. And on Fox’s new mid-season comedy drama Wonderfalls (Thursday at 9 p.m.), a cynical, disaffected 24-year-old Niagara Falls souvenir-shop clerk gets wigged out when tchotchkes — a wax lion, a brass monkey, a stuffed bear — begin talking to her and won’t shut up until she does their bidding (return a woman’s lost purse, play matchmaker for two lonely people). So why are we suddenly surrounded by TV heroines who hear voices when there’s no one there? Maybe this Gumby on my desk will tell me. Any brilliant ideas, Gumby? No? How about you, Miniature Wind-Up Godzilla? Lego Snape? Anybody? Take your time.

Wonderfalls is a perky surprise in what has been a yawner of a TV season. It’s the best show Fox has put on the air since Undeclared — which, of course, met with a swift cancellation. Let’s hope that enough of the viewers who have made Joan of Arcadia a hit at 8 p.m. will switch over to Wonderfalls at 9 and make a night of watching cranky heroines being dragged kicking and screaming to do good deeds.

Wonderfalls has a lighter tone than Joan — perhaps executive producer Tim Minear’s experience writing for the Buffy spinoff Angel accounts for its heroine’s pitch-perfect blasé/acerbic wit. Jaye Tyler (the instantly lovable Caroline Dhavernas) has a philosophy degree from Brown, so of course she’s working for minimum wage in a Niagara Falls gift shop and living in a battered motor home furnished to look like Jeannie’s bottle. Jaye is bored, self-centered, and snarky; she abuses her geeky boss and her customers with sarcastic quips that sail right over their heads. After work, she hangs out at a cheesy tourist bar knocking back Tequila and bemoaning her going-nowhere life; yet when she’s sober, she seems proud of being a loser. She’s so wrapped up in self-pity and armored against feeling any uncool emotion, she barely notices that the cute bartender is smitten with her.

Jaye is a slob and a whiner and a pessimist stuck in an extended college-slacker phase. Suffering from post-graduate malaise, she’s too smart for her surroundings and too scared to venture out into the uncertain world and tempt grand failure. Better to fail right where she is. Jaye needs to engage with the world; she needs to learn to care about her fellow humans, whom she detests so much. In this way, Wonderfalls is reminiscent of Northern Exposure, which also featured a snotty leading character thrust into a situation that forced him to rethink his cynical notions about people and to examine his own values. Dhavernas’s Jaye is such a tangy concoction that I wish creators Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland had followed the lead of Northern Exposure and let the natural quirkiness of the town and the people draw her out of her snarky cocoon. The gimmick of the talking inanimate objects (or spirit guides, if you want to get fancy) is just a little too cute.

It’s also unnecessary. The Niagara Falls setting provides metaphysical and metaphorical opportunities by the barrelful. Like Northern Exposure, Wonderfalls depicts a slice of Americana with neither cloying reverence nor empty snideness. Sure, the souvenirs are tacky, but the show reclaims the awesome beauty of an area derided for its commercialism. In the shop, Jaye watches an endlessly looping video called "Surrender to Destiny" about the legend of a Native American maiden sacrificed to the Falls, and there’s a mother lode of meaning and portent right there for the writers to play with. Jaye has surrendered to her fears and her laziness, but what is her true destiny?

There’s also a stab of truth in the show’s portrayal of Jaye’s overachieving family. Snooty mother Karen (Diana Scarwid) is a celebrated travel writer. Father Darrin (William Sadler) is a surgeon and staunch Republican. Older sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) is a hot-shot US immigration attorney and closeted lesbian. Brother Aaron (Lee Pace) is a perpetual grad student studying comparative religions — his parents are nonetheless impressed with all of his degrees. Jaye is the square peg in her family (say "Karen," "Darrin," "Sharon," and "Aaron" out loud and then "Jaye") and a disappointment. No wonder she’s such a surly slacker — that’s her reaction to what must have been an over-scheduled, competitive childhood. As another character pointed out in a recent episode, Jaye has created the perfect "pressureless, expectation-free environment" for herself.

But she also seems aware of her squandered potential. Her soul — call it conscience, call it guilt — refuses to be quiet, and that’s why she hears those voices. Not that this explains why so many other TV heroines are hearing voices as well. And what’s with all the "doing good deeds" stuff? Well, Little Stuffed Spongebob here tells me it’s because the world is a mess and young people feel powerless. And these shows tap into the desire to fix what’s broken, even if it means fixing the world only one person at a time. You know, I think Little Stuffed Spongebob speaks the truth.

IN SCHOOL OF ROCK, writer Mike White and director Richard Linklater created an audacious and bodacious family film that spoke to boomer parents and their kids in a common language. Who would have believed that the common language would be AC/DC, or that the messenger would be the magnificent scalawag Jack Black? Parents who took their kids to see School of Rock know that, for 90 minutes, there was generational harmony and the music did set us free and we raised our goblets of rock and drank mightily in familial togetherness. And then it was back to our respective corners for the next round.

So you’re forgiven if you tuned in to Cracking Up (Monday at 8:30 p.m. on Fox), Mike White’s take on the family sit-com, expecting more of the same good vibes. Unfortunately, Cracking Up turns out to be one of those signature Fox-coms — overly lit, hyperactive, cluttered up with garish sets, by turns crass and treacly and completely not funny.

Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) plays Ben, a psychology student who moves in with the Shackletons, a Beverly Hills family who think their youngest son, Tanner, is emotionally troubled. The joke is, he’s the only sane one! Tell me you didn’t see that coming. Dad Ted (Christopher McDonald) is a macho-posturing boob who owns a pharmaceutical company. Mom Leslie (Molly Shannon in a scarily manic performance) is a sexually repressed, anxiety-ridden nut job. The older son is gay and doesn’t know it, the daughter is a naive sexpot — the Shackletons are like the Addams Family (except, you know, they’re not funny).

Every week, Ben has to show Ted and Leslie how to be good parents. When Tanner catches Ben and his girlfriend in bed, Ben has to sit Ted and Leslie down and explain that it’s time for them to talk to their children about sex. When Tanner is exposed to pot in Ben’s dorm, Ben has to sit Ted and Leslie down and explain that it’s time for them to talk to their children about drugs. Ted and Leslie are in denial; they resist, they overreact, they fail in loud, crude ways that involve yet more sex and drugs, and then in the end, they find the courage to act like parents and everyone eats pizza and hugs. Did I mention that it’s not funny?

I can’t even tell exactly what Mike White brings to this disaster beyond pulling in an exhausted-looking (and, may I add, not funny) Jack Black for a guest shot as a screaming anti-drug crusader. Cracking Up may be the ultimate Fox sit-com. It’s cynical and mocking of parental worries — in short, it tells parents to follow the advice of mental-health professionals like Ben and quit complaining about the bad influences their kids pick up from pop culture. Maybe Cracking Up isn’t supposed to be funny. Maybe this is Fox’s idea of a public-service announcement. Whatever it is, Cracking Up is the worst show any network has to offer this season. In fact, Comic Book Guy Action Figure here just told me that it’s the worst show ever.

Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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