`Joan,' with more edge, anger and odd energy

Jaye of `Wonderfalls' takes her cues from inanimate objects

March 11, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Wonderfalls is Joan of Arcadia without God -- but with more anger and angst. While that might sound like the makings of a pretty dark drama, there's also a screwy comic energy to this new Fox series that is hard to resist.

Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is a recent Ivy League graduate employed as a clerk selling souvenirs in a strip mall in her hometown at the foot of Niagara Falls. She has a degree in philosophy, lives in a trailer, drinks more than she should and works under the thumb of an assistant manager who is still in high school.

She was passed over for the assistant's manager's job in part because of her lack of "people skills." And, as laughably officious as her teen boss can be, one has to admit he's much better with customers than she is.

Her status-conscious mother (Diana Scarwid) thinks Jaye is clinically depressed. Her father (William Sadler), a medical doctor, thinks the problem is connected to Jaye not having any discernable sex life. Her older sister (Katie Finneran), an uppity lawyer, thinks Jaye is simply an ill-tempered loser.

No doubt about it, Jaye has problems. But as she sees it, they were more or less manageable until the day that inanimate objects started talking to her -- and singing snatches of old standards like "A Bicycle Built for Two."

It starts with a miniature wax lion in the souvenir shop demanding that she ask a UPS guy who hits on her where his wedding ring is. And, although she agrees to see a psychiatrist in the wake of the talking lion, things only get worse when a monkey statue on the shrink's desk starts chatting her up.

Before the monkey, Jaye explains away what is happening to her by saying, "I have lots of stress -- I work retail."

After the monkey, self-doubt deepens. When a bartender suggests they date, she replies: "I may be clinically insane. You might want to hold out for somebody a little more stable."

Mental patient or prophet? She's being called to something. The question is what.

Wonderfalls is not as traditional or goody-two-shoes in its approach to spirituality as such 1980s and '90s series as Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. And, unlike Joan of Arcadia, in which God takes on various human forms to talk to Joan, God is only mentioned twice here.

"Oh, God, I'm a crazy person," Jaye says shortly after asking the wax lion whether it is "a metaphor, God, or Satan." For once, the lion doesn't answer.

But Jaye is being called to a vague brand of prime-time religion that compels her to shake off her funk and get involved in trying to help others. Much of the fun in the pilot is in watching this cranky character, winningly played with attitude and edge by Dhavernas, grudgingly come out of her self-absorption inch by painful inch.

Nothing here is particularly new. Northern Exposure, a CBS series in the 1990s starring Rob Morrow as a self-centered doctor working in Alaska to pay off medical school loans, offered the same kind of spiritual story arc: A cynical young adult discovers that the seemingly bleak and random universe they inhabit is actually full of magic and meaning -- if only they will risk the journey to find it. Frank Capra was working a similar terrain in feature films of the 1940s.

Wonderfalls does not tell the story as well as Northern Exposure or even Joan of Arcadia. But it's a nice story for each generation to hear, and Wonderfalls tells it well enough to deserve a mid-season hearing.


When: Tomorrow night at 9

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: A new Fox drama about a young woman who hears voices - and her name is not Joan.

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