A handful of networks have the patience and faith to nurture quality shows that initially stumble in the ratings, but with a few exceptions, like Arrested Development, Fox isn't one of them. The deathwatch for Wonderfalls, a quirky slice of whimsy with no stars and no obvious hooks, started before the show even premièred: Virtually all the early reviews doubled as preemptory efforts to halt the inevitable cancellation. But no amount of pleading could save Wonderfalls from disappearing after a curtailed four-episode run, so it's left to the new 13-episode DVD set to suggest what might have happened had Fox waited around to cultivate an audience. Based on the episodes that actually aired, Wonderfalls seemed like a promising hybrid of frenetic Malcolm In The Middle-style comedy and free-floating Gen-Y ennui, anchored to a winning, no-nonsense heroine played by Caroline Dhavernas. It's tempting to imagine the show developing into a lost classic, joining other great Fox castaways like Profit or Firefly, but the two-thirds that never aired offer evidence to the contrary.
Though littered with romantic dilemmas and oddball coincidences, Wonderfalls has the tone of a fractured comedy, and there's a reason why comedies on TV only last half an hour. At double-length, there isn't enough to sustain Dhavernas' minor adventures, especially when so little of the drama carries over from one episode to the next. Yet in its brightest moments, the series taps into the half-cracked worldview of an Ivy League castaway who's constantly gagging from the sour taste of unrealized adulthood. A disaffected 24-year-old with a philosophy degree from Brown University, Dhavernas presides over a cheesy Niagara Falls souvenir shop, where she takes orders from a slack-jawed "mouth-breather" in his teens. After work, she naturally gravitates toward the local watering hole, where she takes an interest in new bartender Tyron Leitso, a handsome newlywed whose sweetheart (Jewel Staite) cheated on him with a bellhop on their honeymoon. Dhavernas and Leitso seem like a natural pair on the rebound, but cosmic forces get the better of her when inanimate animal figurines (a wax lion, a monkey statuette, lawn flamingos, etc.) start telling her what to do.
A typical Wonderfalls episode falls into a comfortable formula: Dhavernas listens to the animals' cryptic orders, follows them in spite of her better instincts, gets jerked around on a wild-goose chase, and eventually discovers there's some weird order to the universe. The best shows are usually the most outlandish, as with the mix-up that sends Dhavernas and her brother across the border in search of their deported French-Canadian housekeeper, or the bitter stand-off between guest stars Rue McClanahan and Louise Fletcher over who plunged over Niagara Falls in a barrel. But like installments in a long-running sitcom, the episodes are pleasant but interchangeable, so self-contained that they could be screened in random order. Only the last few episodes have the continuity of a dramatic series, as Dhavernas fights off Leitso's psychotic vixen of a wife, but they in turn lose the wispy charm that made it so endearing in the first place. It's easy to blame Fox for pulling a potential gem like Wonderfalls, but the future wasn't as bright as it seemed.