Oct 11 2013 4:00pm

We’re all Meh Here: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland Premiere Recap

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.

When Nancy Lambert doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, she’s busy writing, cutting down restless draugrs in Skyrim, or putzing around online.

David Gunter
1. spdavid
Honestly I'm glad this is a limited run show,at least I hope it stays that way.Way over CGIed and obviously geared more toward people who have kids with them watching.Alice comes across like she was once a champion MMA fighter.Original OUAT is far more relatable and watchable with much more interesting characters,most of which are not a CGI figment.My only regret is I'm too old to take acid while I'm watching this because that was my first thought,an acid trip.
Jon L
2. Jon L
The fact you admit to only watching a few sdhows of Once Upon a Time is telling in this article. You say it did not grab you as does this show "NOT" grab you. It is almost like you are reviewing both shows though instead of the one. If you are going to do so you might as well WATCH them both then. Once upon a time is a well written show and reminds me very much of Lost. But by your implication of Sayid breaking somone's neck with his pinkie toe comment.. I am gathering you cared not for Lost either.
Your article is drol to say the least I am afraid. Having not seen the original Once Upon a Time and then basing your review on both shows makes it so. I truly HATE when people do reviews on assumptions!!! :|
Jon L
3. DanieG
I disagree that all fantasy shows for adults need to be dark, brooding, edgy and morally ambiguous....I'm still very much a kid at heart and while I love watching Game of Thrones with it's very adult aim, I can still enjoy something much more light-hearted, fun and fairytale-ish. While I hope there will always be a balance of the two, I like the fact that when I feel like a pick me up, there are shows like Once Upon a Time and OUAT in Wonderland to watch. I know many people who can't handle shows like GOT, so I'm glad there are alternatives for those who are more sensative to the darker stuff. I really enjoyed Wonderland, specifically because there is nothing else like it out there and as an unabashed fan of fairytales and fantasy it is very welcome to have it on the screen each week.
Jenny Thrash
4. Sihaya
I'm tired of finding gritty edges tacked onto things in order to make it socially acceptable for adults to like them. Apparently if I can watch something with my kids then I certainly shouldn't be watching it without them. I thought this OUaT had fewer annoying flip-flop, soap-operatic arguments and lamely retread dialogue lines than the original. Characters revealed themselves more through their actions. I really liked the spirit of adventure that seemed to be inherent to the overall tale. The effects looked very unfinished and cheap, but their overall aesthetic was enjoyable, and as a childhood Doctor Who fan, I would like to think that I can look past such things. Lastly, the reason Jafar is there is obvious - for one reason or another, he followed the genie. Why is Cyrus there? That's probably a more interesting story.
Jon L
5. EC Spurlock
I liked the show overall but I have issues with the casting. Socha is the only one really putting any heart into his performance. Even when she's kicking butt I feel like Lowe is just reciting lines and going through the motions. I'm hoping she puts alittle more passion into her performance as the show goes on. And Rigby is just atrocious; she mumbles her lines like a zombie; she may be trying for cold and calculating but she just comes off as wooden and bored. Lana Parilla established some huge shoes to fill in the Evil Queen department and Rigby is just dwarfed by comparison. Agree with #1 and #4 that the CGI is kind of shoddy but I'm also hoping that will improve as things go on. At least Lithgow is gamely pulling off the character with some very good voice acting. Wonder if we'll see Barbara Hershey reprise her role as the Queen of Hearts? That gives me some foreboding for our lovable Knave... and explains the line about "I helped you get your heart back".
Jon L
6. Athreeren
In Baldur's Gate intro, Sarevok showed exactly how badass you could be while strangling someone with your own hand ("I will be the last, and you will go first."). Here, I just had the impression that Jafar was afraid of catching the Red Queen's cooties. Really, they shouldn't try to shoehorn Star Wars references in every scene of both of these shows : most of them really feel forced (in fact, same thing goes for everything else Disney)
Jon L
7. AD
In OUAT, you either get used to the forced story crossovers or run away screaming. (Jiminy Cricket nearly got me, but I stuck it out.)

But there is too grit in OUAT. Rumplestiltzkin has done some really terrible things on camera. People die. It's just hidden under a layer of cheese.
Jon L
8. AmyDF
I love OUAT, it has plenty of depth to keep me hooked from the beginning. Unfortunately, OUAT in Wonderland has very poor VFX and the acting does nothing to keep me reeled in. The Red Queen just makes me laugh (lips); Jafar....well...anyways... I won't be watching it anymore. I will stick with QUAT.
Jon L
9. Sunnyliz
I'm glad there are shows like this. There is so much on tv that is gritty and dark, or funny but raunchy, that we NEED a light-hearted fairy tale with just a bit of cheese. And I'm not just talking about for the kids and families. These are the kinds of shows I like.

I'm actually liking this a bit better than OUAT. The love story with Alice and Cyrus is sweet, the Knave is adorable and vulnerable with a good bit of bad boy thrown in, and I love Alice being kick-butt and determined but still vulnerable. But the Red Queen needs some serious work as a character and those lips of hers just make her look silly, while Jafar I'm holding judgment on until I know more about him and his motives. All in all, I think they need to flesh out the villains and I'll be pretty happy with it.

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