Go Ask Alice

Halfway through last night’s 2-hour premiere of the SyFy miniseries Alice, the Walrus and the Carpenter, reimagined as chemists in a vast laboratory of milked human emotions (don’t ask), wander through their warehouse as the Carpenter recites:

The time has come, Walrus, old friend
To test our many skills
The Oohs, the Aahs, the healing drops,
The passions and the thrills,
And see how joy and awe and lust
Can all be turned to pills.

It’s indicative of the series as a whole: numerous, often-skillful callbacks to Lewis Carroll’s books, in a setting too far from the original to feel comfortable and not quite thrilling enough to be gonzo fun. That said, the series has some redeeming features; the trick is whether they’re enough to get you to tune in for tonight’s conclusion.

Below the cut, let’s talk of pros and cons and iffy plots, of cabbages and kings!

Two years ago, SyFy (then the SciFi Channel) produced Tin Man, a miniseries that purported to update The Wizard of Oz with a gritty steampunk twist. It was a disaster, from the wooden dialogue to the nonsense plot that centered around a doomsday device designed to cast the world into darkness for reasons no one ever bothered to explain. Even roping in some vaguely A-list actors (the wasted Zooey Deschanel, the doing-his-best Alan Cumming) couldn’t help them; the series buckled almost immediately under the weight of its own ambition and never recovered.

It’s unfortunate, since The Wizard of Oz‘s plot is a straightforward gather-your-allies adventure that would seem to lend itself very well to adaptation. The Alice books, which by comparison scamper aimlessly in a surrealist playground, would seem a trickier animal to adapt wholesale, and has generally been more successful when it appears as a callback in a larger piece. The Matrix is an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, from the White Rabbit right on down the line.

…Which is interesting, since this Alice also features a totalitarian regime that artificially drains humans’ emotional energy for their own sustenance, complete with a ragtag resistance determined to make good. (Awkwaaaard.)

The setup: Alice, a martial-arts instructor, gets commitment-shy with her new boyfriend when he offers her a ring. It’s for the best, since he’s kidnapped immediately afterwards (some men are just trouble). In chasing down his captors, Alice falls through a magic mirror into a Wonderland that’s gone to seed, 150 years after “the other Alice” turned everything on its head. Now human “oysters” (I see what you did there!) are stolen from our world and put into The Casino, a supernatural Vegas in which everyone wins every time so that their positive emotions can be mined for the use of Wonderlanders, who trade the multicolored thrills like currency. (Also, Alice’s father is missing, which is treated like a legitimate B-plot instead of one of the most overused and unnecessary tropes in the business.)

There’s almost nothing of Wonderland in the plot. It’s in the details that you recognize Carroll: Alice propping up her long limbs in a shrinking room; an encounter with a remarkably faithful Jabberwocky; an unsettling Tweedledee and Tweedledum; a murderous March Hare with a ceramic rabbit’s head; an underground password about a little crocodile; a Dormouse in charge of a Tea Party that’s a speakeasy stock market in disguise. The series is packed to the gills with references to Alice, which, if you can ignore the laughable A-plot, are fun to come across.

It takes a good actress to handle all this nonsense with grace. Luckily, as played ably by Caterina Scorsone, Alice is up to the task. Her Alice is rash (obligatory, since for any Alice we need the kind of girl who’s willing to chase people into dark alleys), but she’s also no dummy; she picks locks, she knows when to lie, and she can even accept help when she needs it.

Help, in this case, comes from the Hatter, a boyband-ified resistance-fighter incarnation of Carroll’s anarchist host. However, Andrew Lee Potts (one of many SyFy contract players in this miniseries) does the best he can, and gives real feeling to the tentative friendship that develops with Alice as they go on the lam. (If they’re going for a love triangle, then tonight’s conclusion better have more appearances by the fleeting Philip Winchester as Jack; it’s a rough gig to disappear for ninety minutes at a time and hope viewers still want you to get the girl.)

Of course, these three actors form the Taking This Seriously trifecta. The rest of the roll call—Kathy Bates, Colm Meaney, Matt Frewer, and Tim Curry—got scripts with a note that read HAM INSIDE. Each is gleefully committed to the material, overacting as hard as possible any time the camera’s on them. Tim Curry, woefully underused, still walks off with the trophy, and Kathy Bates almost makes up for her hideous half-assed Queens’ robes with a performance that’s both camp and vaguely creepy. (Matt Frewer’s pathos as the White Knight, Wonderland’s last remaining paladin, is also successful; he’s another one I want more of tonight.)

Last night left viewers hanging (and Alice quite literally so); and despite the uneven pacing and heavy-handed infodumping in the series’ first half, I’ll be tuning in tonight because I want to know how it all unfolds, which is more than I can say about SyFy’s last miniseries. Alice: Upgrade.

Alice airs tonight on SyFy; the first half reruns at 7pm Eastern time, and the second half premieres at 9pm Eastern.

Genevieve really, really hated Tin Man (which deserved to be hated, as it was awful). You can read all about it on her blog.


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