Wonderfalls: An Inadvertent Snapshot of the US Economy in 2004

Here are some my thoughts on a short lived TV Show that no one watched but it’s a show that has drastically helped me gather my thoughts and feelings about economic issues and shifting generational trends during the 00’s.

**Disclaimer: I know it’s “just a show” and shows don’t have to have any realism in them as in Carrie cannot afford her apartment in Sex in the City because writers get peanuts and no one can afford an apartment in NYC with a walk in closet, let’s be real. BUT, era attitudes shape how you give characters their backstories, jobs, and personalities and how other characters react to them and it’s just a pause where we think about the set up for the show and how it was shaped by a time that may be over.**

Like most people I didn’t know that Wonderfalls even existed until years after it “aired”. I put that in air quotes because out of the 13 full episodes that were scripted, shot, and edited, only four of them actually aired on network TV before the plug was pulled. They were released in full only later, in a DVD compilation. The show was made by the now prolific and revered Bryan Fuller creator of Dead Like Me, Pushing Daises, Hannibal, American Gods, aka the things on TV that look as beautiful as they makes you feel. Unfortunately Fuller’s shows have a way of getting cut off just as they’re getting good.

Wonderfalls is an extremely niche show – a comedy-drama revolving around commiserate Gen-Xer Jaye, who has a philosophy degree but works in a gift shop, and her adventures hearing items with animal faces tell her to help people. I’m not actually sure who that is marketed too, especially in 2004 and every time I’ve showed this series to someone they responded with a blank stare when I asked if they liked it.

The show is more notable now because it’s become increasingly uncomfortable to watch after the financial and social events of 2008. While you can argue that every show is a product of its era, some shows convey the feelings and mood of that era even better than others or they’re made right before a drastic shift in the world such that accidentally, beyond what the show actually is, this show is in a time-lock. While you can see the outwards signs of the times in hits like Taxi, Friends, Facts of Life, or Perfect Strangers – these slice of life with a twist shows they somehow remain much more universal because they rely on broad strokes we are still using. Wonderfalls both examines itself as by accident, the year of its airing that seem stuck to the frame of time instead of shows which could be much more easily updated.

The show’s main character is Jaye, a self proclaimed stereotypical Gen Xer of that time who has decided to work a minimum wage job as a retail clerk in Niagara Falls, NY despite having a BA. Remember it’s 2004 and Gen X is still the “slacker” generation of waffling underachievers. It’s 2004 and the economy is actually doing pretty well and being in a retail job is not a punishment for living in a time without living wage jobs, it’s a choice, especially for Jaye who is from a well off family. Gen Xers now have houses and kids and mortgages and are middle management – they’re still viewed in ways as an apathetic and tuned out generation but their ranks are now marked by being stuck between a rock (Boomers not leaving their old jobs) and a hard place (Millennials hungry for work and raises with less obligation). We’ve already rolled in to the world of the strange and baffling watching this show from the future because the show so relies on the idea that Jaye’s underachieving is linked to her generation.

The second part of that is while Jaye is seen as underachieving in this day and age if you graduate and obtain a retail job with your BA you are among good ranks since over half of people who have obtained a BA in the past 6 years work retail, it’s over a quarter of people with an MA even. College degrees mean a coin toss of staying out retail and as for the view from here: people with BAs in retail are seen as hard working versus the people who “won’t settle” and “remain jobless”. Digging deeper in to the set up Jaye has lives alone, in a trailer park (32% of people 21-32 live with their parents and only 10% live alone), works a steady job (a feat about 35% of BAs haven’t accomplished), and has completed her degree on time (something over 65% of people who go to college don’t accomplish). This isn’t shocking that she’s outside of the norm but what is shocking is that:

We’re supposed to think Jaye is a loser because of these things.

The things that make her an exceptional Millennial, make Jaye a straight up Gen X “loser” in the context of this show, and frankly, this time.

To a lesser degree this is underlined by another character in the show, Jaye’s love interest, Eric. Eric is dumped on his honeymoon and decides to stay in Niagara Falls to start a new life without his wife. Wherever Eric was working before is immaterial to the plot and he is hired right off the street in to a bar. This is pretty much an impossible feat as of now. I interviewed for a restaurant in 2009 for a waitress job and in a quick chat when dropping off my credentials was told if I did not have 5 years of experience I was SOL because she had over 180 people call for the job. There are no longer “pick up” jobs like this (barring you don’t know someone), there is no booming economy, there is no sad guy at the bar gets hired on the spot – if there ever was.

The other interesting point is that this takes place in Niagara Falls, a city which has lost a lot of it’s population over the past 10 years (as well as tourism) and is now offering to pay portions of new residents student loans (despite having around 12% unemployment and very little in the way of jobs). Niagara Falls was a tourist trap and I actually visited it around the time this show “takes place” and there was so much hustle and bustle you would think this city would not have any problem opening up new business because of the amount of people it needs to accommodate every year but the stats tell a different story.

Regardless of my feelings about the show re-watching Wonderfalls was like opening a bomb in my face that showed how tragic and twisted the US economy has become. It’s not that the show is 100% accurate and there were plenty people who were unemployed in 2004 (about 4.5% says the internet) but it was a completely different world in terms of competitive behaviors, in terms of how retail jobs/part time jobs were viewed, and the lens of how both personal responsibility, educational attainment, and economic responsibly are viewed.

For many years after 2008, my husband and I lived in a single bedroom apartment in a crappy run down apartment complex, not all that unlike Jaye’s trailer park and I remember being commended by people like Jaye’s parents as being a “go getter” instead of being rankled by them for not living up to my potential because none of them knew more than a handful of college graduates who could live on their own due to a combination of chronic under and unemployment as well as declining salary and hefty college debt.

It’s not that Wonderfalls is a perfect encapsulation but I did have several retail jobs in 2004, all of which were fairly easy to get. It was more likely for people with BAs to obtain work in their field, and they were more likely to choose if they wanted to take a job or not due to economic factors. People moved less for work as well which is a good sign that jobs were available in a place they wanted them to be. Wonderfalls reflects the idealized version of this, sometimes that is beyond comprehension in the economic climate almost 1.5 decades later. In 2015, retail work not only paid exactly the same (when adjusted for inflation) as in 2004 but rent across the US has increased 17% MORE than minimum wage.

As for the Gen-X, very few shows are willing to jump in feet first and confront the moving target of generational grouping. This show offers a pin for a moment where we viewed Gen-X in a not all that dissimilar way to Millennials now, not giving them the benefit of their actions which are placed in the context of their time and situations. This is illustrated really well in the third episode, “Karma Chameleon”.

In this episode Jaye is followed by a woman who is trying to write a “think piece” on Generation X and their slacker mentality. Jaye ends up having to write the piece herself to get rid of the woman and realizes that she has actually not checked out but consciously downgraded her life and got out of the pressure/rat race. It’s not that she’s underachieving it’s that she doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. This is something coming up about Millennials “killing diamonds” or “killing cereal”, instead of reminding ourselves that generations make conscious choices from the things provided to them by society. We’re all shaped by the time and place and situation we grow up in. Some choices are made for us, but we do our best with the ones we are able to make.

Which brings me to my final point. At the end of the series, even though Jaye has a “crappy job” and a “boring life” she is actually able to make many positive changes for other people. The series is about her being able to effect change from her “meaningless” position in life with just a few small changes in her behavior and actions (albeit at the behest of a very noisy cast of possibly possessed animal figurines). Jaye is happiest when she doesn’t think of her self-worth in terms of “supposed to”. That despite any labels or ideals that are put on her, she is best when she’s making other peoples lives better and that reaches far beyond generational divide.

I can’t help but sit back and wonder if I could absorb more of the life lessons in Wonderfalls, if I would be more at peace with my generation and future ones.

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