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What's the Use of Wonder-in'?

As you may well know, when Wonderfalls got canceled a while back, the skies darkened and the earth rumbled. Grown men took the streets rending their clothing, as their wives and children wept. Most candlelight vigils held from coast to coast remained peaceful, sober affairs; but at more than few, the crowd — understandably whipped into a frenzy as they cursed the name of Fox President Gail Berman and her children and her children’s children — broke the windows of local shops and set fire to garbage cans. Even in cities where the National Guard managed to restore order, the simmering rage was palpable — people just couldn’t control their fury that Fox had canceled Wonderfalls.

Unless, of course, you really didn’t care for the show.

Hard to believe, I know. As the show’s very vocal boosters weren’t shy of informing you, to know Wonderfalls was to love, love, love it. Several weeks after Fox did its dirty deed, it’s remains fairly clear in the public consciousness that everyone who watched an episode embraced Wonderfalls’ quirky premise, its unique characters, its whip-smart writing. And so, after Fox canned the show after just four episodes, a cry arose from fans, TV critics, even the show’s producer that Wonderfalls was on the short end of the greatest injustice since the Jackson Administration asked the Cherokee if they wouldn’t feel more comfortable in Oklahoma. After all, the reasoning seemed to go, it would take a real knuckle-dragging, open-mouthed-breathing, drooling ape not to appreciate the genius of Wonderfalls.

Well, I’ve been able to walk upright some time, I’m only an open-mouth breather when performing strenuous exercises, and, I’ve mostly got the drooling problem under control. And I fail to appreciate the genius of Wonderfalls.

I wanted to like the show. I was inclined to like the show. Whenever something carries the “Best New Show of the Year” buzz — even during a season where test patterns are in the running for that distinction — attention must be paid. When Snell — no pushover, he — gave the show his seal of approval, that was enough for me: Wonderfalls would have my full and undivided attention.

At least until the pilot episode drove me up a wall.

We watch a lot of bad television because of this gig. Witless sitcoms. Tepid dramas. Watered-down Law & Order and CSI knockoffs so indistinguishable we can’t even keep them straight with flash cards and mnemonic devices. WB “comedies.” UPN “dramas.” And vice versa. It’s all a load of crap, and professional obligations prevent us from averting our eyes.

And yet, we get through it. We grit our teeth and gird our loins and think up clever, cutting things to say to distract us from the fact that, yes, indeed, that’s Kelly Ripa making monkey faces on our TV set and she brought her friends Faith Ford and Ted McGinley along for the ride. It’s either that, or our brains shut down in self defense. We’ve got it down to a science.

Except in one instance — for me at any rate. I can put up with insipid laugh tracks, mimeographed cop shows and just about any Tony Danza vehicle you can throw at me. After all, stuff like Homeboys from Outer Space and Shasta McNasty and Baby Bob never aspired to be anything more than the filler between blocks of commercials. But the one kind of show that I can’t bear to watch is one with pretensions of grandeur that falls spectacularly, wincingly, ineptly short of the mark. There’s something to be said for aiming to be great, I suppose, but not when you wind up several zip codes south of mediocre.

And no recent show has fared worse in that regard than Wonderfalls. At least to me.

My big problem was with the writing. It was too self-conscious, too pleased with its own cleverness and, as a consequence, never sounded like anything that could convincingly come out of the mouths of people not reading cue cards. The pilot episode had the mother of the main character, a woman in her late 40s, early 50s, toss around words like ‘snarky,’ which the young’ens these days have co-opted to the point that it sounds ridiculous when spoken by anyone in the over-40 set. But, so long as you have no problem with all your characters sounding alike no matter what their age, I guess that’s not really a problem. Every time I tried to lose myself in the story, the dialogue kept jerking me back into reality; I never, for one minute of Wonderfalls forgot I was watching a TV show.

I also had little use for the main character — a drab, awful, mopey young woman seemingly designed to repel as many viewers as possible. And before you start composing those “Well, obviously, you just don’t get that she’s supposed to be aimless and unappealing and, yes, snarky since the show is all about this bitter, sarcastic underachiever’s spiritual growth” e-mails, save your keystrokes because I do get that. I just don’t think the Wonderfalls brain trust pulled it off particularly well. It’s perfectly possible to build a series around a main character who’s flawed and a little damaged and not especially likable; it’s just not a good idea to build a series around someone who, in addition to being flawed and a little damaged and not especially likable, is also irretrievably boring.

There seems to be a tendency to ignore these flaws or to at least give Wonderfalls a free pass because the show is “different.” I can understand that inclination — with so much of prime-time network TV such an indistinguishable mess these days, it must feel like a relief when a show comes along that tries to break free from the box in which TV networks stuff all their programming. But “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” Me pouring Magic Shell on myself while I reel off baseball statistics from the 1970s would certainly be “different;” it wouldn’t exactly qualify as “good,” any more than a show about an off-putting mope where everyone speaks in the same hipster lingo would be any good.

(If, however, you’re interested in 30 minutes of me covered in Magic Shell and listing the batting averages for the Big Red Machine, send $20, a VHS cassette and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to TeeVee.)

Of course, all that’s just my opinion. If yours happens to differ, vis-a-vis the quality of Wonderfalls, I’m perfectly willing to concede the point that you like the show better than I do, and give you my full and unequivocal permission to head to your favorite message board of choice and ruthlessly slag on my reasoning, my parentage and myself. Your opinion’s worth about as much as mine in the greater scheme of things.

Except in one case: when it comes to the task of picking shows I wind up watching, however, my opinion carries a tad more weight than yours. And my opinion, after watching the Wonderfalls pilot was that one episode of that was plenty, thanks.

Looking at the ratings, it’s not like I’m the only one who came to that conclusion.

So I can’t really take Fox to task for not giving Wonderfalls a chance; since I bugged out right after the pilot episode, it’s not like I gave the show much of a chance either. Yeah, in a perfect world, Fox might have burned off the remaining episodes — especially since it’s not like the network has anything better on the bench — the six dozen or so people who gave a crap would have gotten a chance to see their favorite program play out the string, and the rest of us could have continued to happily not watch nor care. Then again, if Fox was in the business of taking my advice, we’d be wrapping up the third seasons of Undeclared and The Tick right about now and Futurama would be well into a Simpson-esque run. Point is, if you want to sit down and tally all the dumb programming decisions over at the Rupert Broadcasting Network down through the years, we’d have long since taken off counted off all our fingers and toes before we got around to Wonderfalls. Canceling that show wouldn’t even crack the Top 50.

Of course, this is all old news, by now. Wonderfalls is cold and dead and has been for nearly a month and a half now. Unless someone like the WB or UPN decides to pick up the remaining episodes and watch their ratings crater, we’ve likely seen the last of Wonderfall until the commemorative DVD — now with special whining and carping commentary track — comes out. So there’s no point — other than laziness and cruelty — to my kicking even more dirt over the body, is there?

Well, there’s some point, though I’ll grant you, it’s a fairly ridiculous one. Like anything in life, television is awash in conventional wisdom — beliefs accepted as facts that seem reasonable enough until closer examination reveals them to be completely and utterly wrong or, at the very least, wildly inaccurate and totally without nuance. You get it drilled into your head often enough that the Civil War was fought over slavery or that Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination caused Word War I, and you start forgetting that the Civil War resulted from multiple causes, largely regional and economic in scope, or that World War I stemmed from issues involving nationalism, colonialism and military build-ups a century in the making. So why would you even give television’s assorted pearls of conventional wisdom — that The West Wing landed in the toilet once Aaron Sorkin left the show, that Friends should rank among television’s greatest sitcoms, and that Wonderfalls was a well-nigh brilliant show which only craven and stupid Fox executives failed to embrace — a second thought?

Because each one of those statements is incorrect, that’s why. And while thoughtlessly mouthing them may help them become further ingrained in our minds, it doesn’t make them any more correct. And we have an obligation to challenge sloppy, inaccurate thinking wherever we see, even if it’s about something treated as superfluously as television. That way, when the aliens arrive centuries from now to study our long-dead culture, they’ll have some record that The West Wing started to drive off the cliff while Sorkin was still at the wheel, that Friends, while pleasant enough, was a vacuous, vapid non-entity of a show, and that Wonderfalls was not liked by a good many people, some of them with functioning cerebellums. Then, the aliens can turn their oversized brains to less important matters, like what caused World War I.

You can forgive fans for losing sight of that. After all, it’s the job of fans to love shows unconditionally, without qualification or nuance, and to regard those whose devotion is less than total as non-believers and apostates who must be put to the sword, lest they corrupt the faithful. Producers, you might figure, would act differently. Sure, they’re passionate about their creations, and yeah, they get as disappointed as the next guy when things don’t work out. But they realize that Hollywood, she is sometimes more of the cruel bitch goddess than those 1930s musicals let on. And that sometimes, for no reason at all, a perfectly fine show gets canceled, and all producers can do is smile and take it.

Apparently, Tim Minear didn’t get the memo.

Minear is the producer mentioned way back in paragraph three who has spent the six weeks it took me to articulate my Wonderfalls argument making a one-man pity tour of North America. Minear threw out the ceremonial first bleat when he announced at the above link board that Wonderfalls is history and concluded with an interview in the New York Times in which he beat his breast, cursed the fates, and joined the Times reporter in bemoaning the unfairness of it all.

And that’s his right. I suppose I’d be pretty irritated if someone and came on pulled the plug on TeeVee without much a warning (though when you write for a site whose existence depends not on revenue, critical acclaim or public interest but rather on your own stubborn refusal to find a more productive way to spend your time, that’s hardly a risk). But it still doesn’t answer the question: just what was Minear expecting from network television?

I mean, this is a guy who worked on Firefly, which got the shaft far worse than any indignity ever visited upon Wonderfalls. But even if he were some rube fresh off the turnip truck, the question remains: what was he expecting?

Or, to paraphrase some little known movie about the import-export business, this is the business we have chosen. Sometimes, shows are canceled for no better reason than the kid at the deli messed up some programming executive’s lunch order. You don’t have to like it. You certainly can do your best to change it. But if you’re going to complain about it, perhaps you’d find more job satisfaction in a less stressful industry. I’m just saying.

And no, you can’t have the job where you read baseball scores while covered in Magic Shell. I already dibbsed that one.


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