The day after “Wonderfalls” made its debut on Fox last March, the creators and cast began visiting a “save our show” Web site. In most cases, the panic might have been premature. But in the case of “Wonderfalls,” the writing on the wall was clear from the start.

Delayed until spring, then assigned an impossible Friday night time slot, the oddball comedy-drama about a young woman getting cryptic messages from the tchotchkes in a Niagara Falls gift shop drew only 4 million viewers in each of its first two outings. Even to be considered a standard-issue flop, a show has to approach double-digit viewership.

But when “Wonderfalls” was canceled after just four airings, the show didn’t die. Thirteen episodes had already been produced, and now the full series is available as a three-disc DVD boxed set, complete with a documentary, audio commentary and other juicy extras.

The DVD set “gives me large satisfaction,” says Tim Minear, who was one of the three executive producers of “Wonderfalls” along with co-creators Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland.

“Look, I knew what the realities are,” says Minear, a veteran of “Angel” and “The X-Files” who is now at work on the upcoming Fox series “The Inside.” “I also know that most shows won’t make it five years or whatever.”

So, when crafting the first 13-episode story arc of “Wonderfalls,” Minear and his colleagues “made sure it was one story that has a conclusion in episode 13,” he says – thinking, even at the time, that “perhaps these things would live on DVD, and (wanting) people to feel that they had a full experience.”

The result is a nearly perfect miniseries in which “Wonderfalls” shines even more brightly than it did in its brief TV run.

The pilot episode, “Wax Lion,” introduces delightful Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas as Jaye Tyler, a souvenir-shop slacker floored (literally) when a misshapen lion from the Mold-a-Rama machine begins talking to her. Is she insane? Or is she, perhaps, a modern-day Joan of Arc getting instructions from a higher power in an off-center way?

“Are you Satan? Or God?” she queries the lion. “If you don’t say something in the next five seconds, I’m going to assume you’re Satan. … Oh God, I’m a crazy person.”

Actually, Jaye comes off as quite sane when contrasted with those around her, including snooty family (Diana Scarwid and William Sadler as the parents, Katie Finneran as the sister), her mouth-breathing boss (Neil Grayston) and the unfortunate misfits the lion (and a brass monkey, a flamingo, a penguin and other ordinarily inanimate objects) order her to help.

Viewed in its entirety, “Wonderfalls” comes off as a show that, more than anything else, was ahead of its time. The blend of dark comedy and mysterious subtext from Fuller (“Dead Like Me”) and Holland (“Malcolm in the Middle”) feels right at home in a TV universe that has taken so enthusiastically to “Desperate Housewives.” If it had arrived six months later, on – say – ABC, might “Wonderfalls” have become a phenomenon, too?

Probably not. Good as it is, “Wonderfalls” is probably too quirky to have ever engaged mass audiences, particularly given its lack of sexy star power. (Dhavernas is adorable, but not really in the same bombshell league as Nicollette Sheridan and Eva Longoria.)

But that same eccentricity makes “Wonderfalls” perfect for the DVD crowd, not just those who have already embraced the show-and have been waiting impatiently for the boxed set-but those who never got around to sampling it during its brief run.

Watch the documentary on the making of the show first to learn that the talking tchotchkes were inspired by salt and pepper shakers in Holland’s kitchen and that Dhavernas herself visited the “save our show” site (presumably she means, still in operation) sometimes twice a day just to give herself hope.

“Had we come back, there were plenty more stories to tell, but I think there was something to be said for kind of gauging how something might play on disc,” Minear told TV critics recently while promoting “The Inside,” a dark and even vaguely “X-Files”-ish drama about a rookie FBI agent who gets into the minds of both victims and villains. bills “Wonderfalls” as the highest-profile DVD release yet for a canceled series. Fans of “Firefly,” which came out a year ago in a set that included three unaired episodes, might argue, but both releases give hope to fans of other short-lived, cult-favorite series. “Keen Eddie,” anyone?


Fox Home Entertainment; $39.98

Gail Pennington:

(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-11-05 1108EST

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