Oh man, just when I thought I'd handed over enough of my brain to Kitsis and Horowitz, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was announced and I felt the overwhelming pull that a sea anemone might experience as it's raked back into the shadowy depths of the ocean by a silent riptide. Like, I had to watch it, whatever my initial misgivings (references to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland carry a lot of zesty, rave-y, day-glo-mushrooms-in-an-abandoned-warehouse-with-a-fire-dancer-outside subcultural baggage). But Once Upon a Time in Wonderland parts ways with Lewis Carroll’s epistolary wooing of an eight-year-old girl by aging up Alice, making her a butt-kicking karate master, and inserting a love interest and not one but two super-baddums. By the end of the pilot, we were accompanying our heroine as she made her way down her own version of the Yellow Brick Road with sidekicks in tow. It felt not unlike Oz: The Great and Powerful, less the James Franco.
The show seems to assume its audience
completely overlaps with OUAT Classic, grounding some of its first scenes in a tumultuous Storybrooke with no real
explanation. Having already made inter-dimensional portals a thing, it feels completely natural for Alice and the wildly
charismatic Michael Socha to hurtle themselves into a spinning blue screensaver of a portal, and we nod along at the assumption of several interlinked dimensions
(Agrabah, Wonderland, Storybrooke, Victorian England? Victorian
England, you know, that independent dimension.) Which great, hey,
thanks for saving me the boredom of a world-logic re-tread! Appreciated.
if they’re catering to an OUAT audience, they have
overlooked an important element of why we watch OUAT: First Edition. I’m
talking, of course, about Lana Parrilla. J/K! Well, sort of J/K. What
feels left out of Wonderland is a real-world storyline. A huge
draw of OUAT was trying to piece together who in Storybrooke
did what in the Enchanted Forest, and the way the cozy, small-town setting
heightened the fantasy elements. Contrasting an uptight mayor or a
downtrodden schoolteacher with their “true selves” in the
flashbacks was a weird Jungian reflection of how a lot of us feel—that in conforming with our narrowly defined roles in contemporary
society, we have lost touch with a more primal, more physical, more
If this pilot is any indication, Wonderland is ditching the introspection and making its home in pure fantasy.
There are no real-world archetypes to make parallels to, no mystery
to unravel. To me that's a lot less compelling.
Restrictions lead to creativity: Take away all the physical rules of this dimension and
any obligation to draw meaningful parallels between the real world and
fantasy and suddenly you’re staring at a blank page with the first
thoughts that come to mind standing in for the best ones. Suddenly
your hero is waist deep in literal fluff.
But I digress. Forgive me, my
expectations for Wonderland are high. We have to appreciate the fact that OUAT Original Flavor got a spin-off, considering OUAT is Nucking Futs in the best and
bravest way, and Wonderland is trying to do its own thing:
commendable! And I will take any amount of Mallow Marsh over another
CSI: Gooey Body Parts.
Wonderland is pretty straightforward, and its pilot
was a textbook case of exposition all dressed up for a party: Alice is a little girl who plunged into
Wonderland and when she came back, her Papa was sort of angry about
Alice wanted to prove Wonderland is real,
but since her dad didn’t believe in her, she wound up in a madhouse, signing away her rights to not have her brain diddled because
she believes that her one true love, a genie named Cyrus, fell into a boiling sea. And
if your man is gone, what do you need a brain for? Get the lobotomy
and a drippy cup for under your chin and chill.
When Alice realized, thanks to the intervention of the White Rabbit and Knave of Hearts, that Cyrus might still be alive, she threw 35 burly asylum orderlies around like
Super Mario and jumped right back into Wonderland.
Once back in Wonderland, we learned a few
things: Alice can trust no one. John Lithgow’s White Rabbit, who saved her from a lobotomy, is
working for the Red Queen and brought her back at the Red Queen's behest. The Knave of Hearts
considers stealing her shoes and running away. The marshes are made
of marshmallows. Cats eat people. Life is hard, even if it’s as
vibrantly colored as a screen saver.
Alice has two things going for her: She
has inherited from Cyrus three wishes, which conveniently take
physical form as three plastic jewels. And she is also some sort of
karate master, although that does little to help her when
she’s fighting the oversized CGI Cheshire Cat. (Cue kids screaming. Cue parents wondering if they should have watched CGI: Random Body Parts after all.)
Don't get me wrong: I am so grateful I got to see a tiny lady wrestle with a giant cat, thank you Wonderland. But FIX YOUR CGI. Your CGI lace front is showing.
ALSO: If you want a reedy, skinny
heroine, then give her the kind of fighting power that reedy, skinny
people have. I love Sophie Lowe , but let’s be real, girl wouldn’t
win in a cage fight against a golden retriever. Make her quick.
Maybe she’s an expert at throwing bleach on people. Maybe she’s slippery as an eel. DO
NOT have her throw people around like Hulk Hogan. Strong girls have
muscles they have earned doing strength-training and that’s
beautiful, cast one of them if your character being a skilled combatant is important to your story's plot. But
don’t give us ladies a whole other set of complexes, telling us we
should be WWF fighters yet look feeble at the same time, that’s
Ha me and my tirades. Anyway, so we’ve set up our otherwise winning heroine, her dynamic with her companions, her strengths, and her conflict: She must get past the
Red Queen, who wants badly to ruin her life. The Red Queen
has her own problems, namely Jafar, or as Emma Rigby/the Red Queen
insisted on calling him, Jaffffaaaah.
Jafar, played by Naveen Andrews, was
looking so fine until he stepped out of the shadows and
revealed his flowing mane of puffed-out Jerri Curl. I don’t know who approved
that hairdo, but between him and Robert Carlyle’s OUAT Season 1 Rumpelstiltskin, it’s clear that whoever is in charge of the Hot
Toolz thinks Crimper = Evil.
Anyway, we'll trust that they'll fix it (remember Regina's weird insect bangs in Season 1?). Jafar pulled the ol' Darth Vader
ghost strangle on the Red Queen, but then she reminded him that he would
not know how to locate Alice without her, as he doesn’t understand
her realm and there is no Google Street View in Wonderland. Rigby was
S.T.Rugglin’ to make this scene work, and she really committed,
clenching her throat muscles and doing the whole gaspy bit, but
unfortunately, through no fault of hers, it felt a little flat and weird?
I’m glad we have a
Big Boss and a Big Bad, but I’m also confused about why the
conflict between them would be escalated this quickly. It certainly
undercut the Red Queen’s mythos to see her beg for her life in the
pilot. Still, the show dialed her "bad character vibes" all the way up to 11... I think we can handle a little less mustache-twirling going forward.
Anyway. Alice suffered a false defeat
when she went into the clearly dark, uninhabited Mad Hatter’s house
and realized Cyrus was not curled up hiding in a cupboard like
Charles Manson. Then she earned a victory by refusing to stop searching and finding his oversize
pendant in the grass. Can we guess that this is another portal-opening
totem? It was all she needed to believe Cyrus was alive and
well, which he is, in a GIANT BIRDCAGE RULED BY JAFAR!
So, easy arc here: Wizard of Oz, with a
Dorothy who intends to rescue a dude in distress and is not homesick for Kansas. I don’t doubt that she will rescue him, is the thing. Then when
she does—in the finale—boom, next big problem. I would love to be wrong about this, I would love for things to explode next episode into a morally ambiguous conflict where we sort of root for Jafar or something. One of the things
OUAT has going for it—and I’m sorry to keep comparing but
the name and interlinking of the shows certainly invite it—is that every character has a certain level of moral ambiguity, with both good and bad aspects to every person. Emma
is a savior, but she’s also an angry ex-felon who stole a bunch of
watches. Regina is a power-mad evil queen and a dedicated mom. Prince
Charming cheated on his wife (with his real wife) but is incredibly
brave and loyal. These elements mix like a well-made cocktail and generally yield an unpredictable outcome. Hopefully Wonderland brings in something a little deeper and more unsettling: Alice's dad, Alice's past, more internal conflict. Right now, the show is plucky heroine against cartoon villains: a sweet, colorful soft drink, fun but not intoxicating.
… Wonderland: How did you like it?
… Alice and Cyrus: Enough chemistry to fuel the season?
… Do you think we’ll have any “real-world” subplot? Do you think we need one?
… Where are you hoping this series goes?
AIRED ON 4/3/2014
Season 1 : Episode 13