Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, ABC’s new Once Upon a Time spinoff (and nominee for clunkiest show name ever since Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central) debuted/tanked) hopes to recreate some of the magic—and ratings—of the original. I have only seen a handful of Once Upon a Time episodes, making me just barely familiar with the residents of Storybrooke and the devices regularly employed by the show. So, for newbies like me, Wonderland is not only a chance for ABC to hook viewers with a new fantasy show, but it’s also an opportunity for them to talk us into giving OUAT one more try. While Wonderland has some strengths, the premiere didn’t make a terribly strong case for itself either as a stand-alone or as OUAT bait.
Anyone familiar with Disney’s Alice in Wonderland or either Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass will be familiar enough with the Wonderland “mythology” to jump right in. Wonderland handled the character introduction well—they didn’t overwhelm viewers with dozens of characters right out of the gate, even though it would have been easy to do. Instead, we meet just the mains, and through their stories and a handful of flashbacks (and a blessed lack of lame voiceovers), we are introduced to OUAT’s version of Wonderland.
Alice (Sophie Lowe)
The premiere opens with a brief flashback to Victorian England, where a young Alice has just returned from her inaugural trip to Wonderland. Her father is understandably dubious and doubts both Alice’s story and sanity. She vows she will prove she is not lying.
As she grows up, Alice revisits Wonderland many times seeking evidence of its existence. Now a young woman, Alice is bolder and more daring on her journeys. Fleeing from some royal guards, she meets Cyrus, a genie in a bottle. He and Alice immediately connect and set off on many rollicking adventures together. One evening, overlooking The Boiling Sea, Cyrus takes a knee and proposes. They share a long kiss and Alice suddenly pulls back, looking surprised, her gaze slides down Cyrus’ torso. Cyrus, glancing down himself, looks a little embarrassed. He reaches down between them and gently grasps his…glowing red amulet. He gestures to the necklace and explains to Alice, “Our hearts are entwined, from now on I’ll know when you are near, and you will know...” Know what? He never gets to say because The Red Queen corners them. After a brief skirmish, she pushes Cyrus and his pulsing red necklace off the cliff to meet his end in The Boiling Seas like a satin dumpling.
Back in “present” Victorian England, Alice is being reviewed by a board of smug doctors at Bethlem Asylum, where she has been institutionalized by her father. Still grieving Cyrus’ death, Alice tearfully accepts when the doctors offer a groundbreaking new procedure that will
bore a 1.5” hole in her brain help Alice forget Wonderland. But before they can fire up the drill, the Knave of Hearts bursts in to tell Alice that Cyrus is alive. They escape to Wonderland together.
Knave of Hearts/Will (Michael Socha)
The classic bad boy with a heart of gold (as indicated by his black leather jacket, duh) lives in “present” Storybrooke, but The White Rabbit has enlisted him to rescue Alice. The Knave and Alice clearly have some history (in the book, Alice defends him during his trial with The Queen of Hearts; however, in the show Alice alludes to something else, saying, “Once, long ago, I got you back your heart, now you need to help me get back mine.”) He agrees to help her, even though he is a wanted man in Wonderland (he won’t say why). Alice sweetens the deal later by offering him one of her three genie wishes to help her find Cyrus.
The White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow)
As far as CGI rabbits go, this rabbit is a bad mutha (Shut your mouth!) but I’m just talkin’ about White Rabbit! His skills at getting into tight places have already won him internet notoriety. In present Wonderland, The White Rabbit is now a double agent, being used as a spy by The Red Queen.
The Red Queen (Emma Rigby)
No, that’s not The Queen of Hearts. This queen is a living chess piece who holds a fierce grip over Wonderland. In the extended preview clip released a few weeks ago, the Queen was prancing about in a ridiculous bedazzled leotard straight out of a Victoria’s Secret holiday catalog. Thankfully, ABC reshot that scene for the official premiere, where The Red Queen now sports a less-preposterous feathered evening gown. Although her original beef with Alice and Cyrus is as yet unrevealed, she is responsible for luring Alice back to Wonderland. But who wants her to return? Of course! It’s that classic Lewis Carroll villain...Jafar?
SAYID Jafar (Naveen Andrews)
I am so confused. Why is Jafar here? You can accuse Wonderland of a lot of things, but being short on bizarre characters as villain candidates is not one of them. Why import Jafar from Aladdin? I know the story crossover is a thing Once Upon a Time does frequently, but it feels so forced here.
Jafar is conspiring with The Red Queen—they are seeking Cyrus’ bottle and for some reason need Alice to make her three wishes. Gee, I wonder why. Jafar wields the glowy power of his Cobra Commander staff, and flaunts his ability to choke a queen by squeezing his hand in the air just 5 inches away from her neck. (Though I am confident Sayid could actually do this—I think he broke a man’s neck with his pinkie toe once—but this same move from Jafar feels very Darthrivative. Also, if you are that close to a person, you might as well just actually choke them the old fashioned way. It’s like people who type “thx” instead of “thanks.”) In the final scene it’s revealed that Cyrus is indeed alive and Jafar is holding him prisoner.
Sadly, Wonderland didn’t grab me, but then again, neither did Once Upon a Time, and probably for the same reason—both feel very sanitized and flat. They are missing the dark, gritty edge embedded in most fairytales, and especially in Wonderland’s case, where the source material carries so many nuanced moral metaphors.
I do like that the show’s version of Alice is smart, resourceful, and tough—far less passive than the cartoon version—without losing her emotional connection to the story. Her rapport with Will seems genuine (and ripe for love triangle exploitation in later seasons, should the show make it that far).
While I didn’t expect ABC to put the full-on acid-trip “wonder” in Wonderland, their version of the place feels shrunken and neutralized (much like Cheshire Cat was midway through the premiere). The moment Alice and Will plop down in the Mallow Marsh, it’s clear that this Wonderland isn’t going to be edgy. That would be fine if ABC was aiming for a much younger audience, but for adults, Wonderland should be a lot curiouser and curiouser.