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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Wonderfalls' is unique mix of whimsy and cynicism

Inevitably, "Wonderfalls" has to be yoked together with the new spate of post-"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" girl-power shows. It introduces us to yet another hip mystic chick, in the manner of the drab "Tru Calling," the sentimental "Dead Like Me," and the preachy, sweet "Joan of Arcadia." And like the other shows, it takes up the Slayer's multitask of landing the female youth demographic, empowering them with tales of angst, and delivering a supernatural metaphor for growing up.

But "Wonderfalls" is unique, and it truly belongs in a category of its own, or one that can also hold "My Mother the Car," "Mr. Ed," "Arrested Development," "Dr. Dolittle," and maybe even "Ally McBeal." It's a mystic chick series, for sure, but it's not about do-gooding in the name of learning holy lessons. Its heroine, Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), is far too cynical to take God's teachings on "Joan of Arcadia" at face value, and she shudders at the thought of being considered a good person. "I'm not nice," she complains after accidentally doing someone a favor. "I'm just highly susceptible to guilt." A 24-year-old slacker with a PhD in philosophy and a master's degree in snark, Jaye spends her days rolling her eyes at idiocy, sentimentality, and her family. And the show's writers aren't out to reform her with magic, so much as to balance her cynicism with a happy life.

The supernatural twist on "Wonderfalls" is that animal objects -- a cow creamer, for example, or a brass monkey on a therapist's desk -- literally speak to Jaye, giving her mysterious clues about how she should behave. A clerk in a tacky Niagara Falls gift shop, Jaye faces chatty baubles everyday -- and one snide wax lion in particular. She thinks she's going nuts, but then again, she has thought that for a while. She prides herself on her strange ways and her detachment, which is why she lives in a trailer park and has a perverse fascination with an overweight neighbor, whom she dubs "Fatsquach" to her friend Mahandra (Tracie Thoms) and her brother (Lee Pace). But still, the talking-animal business is challenging her stubborn realism.

As Jaye, Dhavernas is as captivating as she is low-key. She comes off like a brainy Parker Posey, with piercing green eyes that betray both rude intolerance and veiled excitement. She makes us believe that a woman who is so knowing and sarcastic, whose response to a love letter is "I think I just threw up a little in my mouth," can also be afraid of her own feelings. Jaye is rude to almost everyone, from her appearance-obsessed mother to every tourist who happily makes their way into her store, but Dhavernas manages to keep her likable and worth rooting for.

As with "Buffy," the "Wonderfalls" scripts are light-heartedly peppered with self-conscious quips and references, as they must be in order to incorporate a character as self-conscious as Jaye. Eric (the Matthew Fox-looking Tyron Leitso), a divorced bartender at the bar where Mahandra works, steals Jaye's heart when he says, "I'm almost numb enough to start something on the rebound. What do you say?" She can barely look at anyone who doesn't project philosophical bite, which is why she clashes with her high-powered lawyer sister (Katie Finneran). If the show can maintain its ability to meet Jaye on her own tart and acerbic level, it could grow into a wonderfully insane, and wonderfully unrepentant, series.

WONDERFALLS

Starring: Caroline Dhavernas, Diana Scarwid, William Sadler, Tracie Thoms, Lee Pace, Katie Finneran, Tyron Leitso

On: Fox, Ch.25

Time: Tomorrow, 9-10 p.m.

Rating: TVPG

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