Have you seen Wonderfalls? Because if you haven’t, you definitely should. It’s another masterwork from the mind of Bryan Fuller, and it is excellent and dark and strange in a way which is different from Pushing Daisies, but also very different from other kinds of television, which is what made it brilliant. And, of course, what ensured that it would fail, because television viewers in general do not enjoy shows which are challenging.
Watching Wonderfalls, I can identify a number of reasons why the show failed, although these reasons are also what makes the show good. Wonderfalls is slow, by which I mean that it develops in a leisurely fashion. It’s not sluggish by any means, but it’s not fast paced. People can watch episodes independently, but they will get more out of it by seeing all of them, and television viewers seem to resent that. And the show lacks violence, explicit sexuality, and action, the things which are apparently needed to attract viewers, because you can’t just make it about the story any more.
I think part of the reason that the show appeals to me so much is that I can totally see myself in the lead character’s shoes. Jaye is a degree-holding smartypants who has returned to her tourist-trap hometown to work in a dead-end retail job. (Sound familiar?) She’s adrift, not really sure she knows what she wants to do with her life, and over the coarse of the series, we watch her struggle with this, and we also see her fail to resolve it. I would say that one of the great things about the ending of the series is that it doesn’t resolve the question of who Jaye will become and what she will do (although, in classic Fuller-style, the story is “resolved” in the sense that Jaye manages to find herself a man to love forever and ever, and in Fuller’s opinion, perhaps that’s all that matters).
She’s indifferent about her crappy job, deals with horrible customers on a daily basis, and is severely isolated in many ways, in addition to being tragically socially inept. Periodically she encounters former classmates who wave their accomplishments over her head and try to use them to shame her, but more often than not, those classmates are hiding misery and failure of their own.
And, of course, like all lead characters in Fuller’s shows, she has certain powers. Specifically, toy animals talk to her, providing directives and advice which influence the lives of others in addition to her own life. It’s interesting to contrast her treatment with that of Ned in Pushing Daisies. Jaye assumes that she must be mentally ill, and even ends up in therapy, and the people around her also believe that she is probably mentally ill. Ned, on the other hand, does not think he is mentally ill, and hides his ability, but has a select circle of friends who are aware of it, and think he’s just dandy. (Likewise, George in Dead Like Me has powers which bring her into the company of a limited group of people.)
In a lot of ways, Fuller explores ingroups and outgroups in his shows, even if they all have supernatural elements which might render them difficult for ordinary people to relate with. Social isolation and quirky behavior are the centerpieces of his shows, and I find it interesting that many of them share a slightly dreamlike, hyper-real quality ( in Pushing Daisies most of all). It’s also interesting to see that his superpowers don’t magically improve the lives of the people they settle on, and in fact make their lives quite difficult and contribute to depression and isolation. The mythology of his shows doesn’t take long to grasp (unlike, say, Whedon or Abrams), but it’s definitely not palatable to everyone. Rather than being set in a strictly fantasy or science fiction world, Fuller’s shows are squarely in the real world (or a version of it), and they feature unique individuals who break the boundaries of reality, rather than taking viewers outside of reality altogether.
I like that. It’s what makes me enjoy his shows despite their certain issues, of which fat hatred is probably the most notable. It’s interesting to me that both Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies feature obsessions with food, and at least one episode in which the fat are denigrated and used as objects of mockery. Between that and the racism and sexism, it’s safe to say that Fuller is not progressive or even particularly enlightened, which raises the eternal question for me: can bad people make good things? Is enjoyment of good things tainted by the knowledge that the person who produced them is bad?