Once Upon a Time in Wonderland S01E01: "Down the Rabbit Hole"

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.

However 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 true self.

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 it.

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 rude.

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?

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 4/3/2014

Season 1 : Episode 13

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