Bad news, Wonderland fans: Last week’s pilot ratings were not great. The show premiered to 5.7 million viewers and a 1.7 rating among adults 18-49, beating only NBC's Thursday-night comedies in its time period—and this was after a heavy promotional campaign and a tie-in with one of ABC’s most successful shows, OUAT Original Flavor (which opened much stronger, to 8.5 million viewers and a 2.6 rating). So we'll have to wait and see how much leeway the network will ultimately give it. One thing it probably won't be getting is additional render time for upcoming episodes, which is unfortunate, because judging by "Trust Me," the post-production department is already rendering the show's FX in draft mode. Yes, it's shocking, I know, but Wonderland's CGI is not awesome, guys!
But the series' larger problem, I would argue, is that its dream logic robs the plot of any and all stakes. When the Knave was sent hurtling toward the ocean after a Fairy he’d had a one-night stand with took her revenge (hahahahahahaha), I wasn’t particularly worried about him, because who knows what oceans do in Wonderland? Maybe he’ll bounce right back up. If Alice can get a perfectly sized new wardrobe from a “Clothes Horse” and there’s such a thing as a Tum Tum Tree, who’s to say the ocean won’t be as springy as a trampoline? Dream logic/a downright silly world = no stakes, and no stakes = no suspense. I mean, it certainly doesn’t help that 90 percent of what we’re looking at is CGI, and the CGI is just not convincing. But during our first foray into OUAT's Wonderland, we saw some disturbing shit. Sebastian Stan had his freaking head chopped off and we stared at his prone body from the POV of his dismembered head. In contrast, Alice’s journey just doesn’t have that sort of horrifying, Is this really happening?! edge.
And sure enough, getting dropped from a mile up into the ocean was totally fine. Knave of Hearts and Alice rescued themselves by finding the giant turtle from the The NeverEnding Story, and Alice put a knife to its throat and hijacked it so that it would speed off toward the other side of the lake.
See, here’s the rub: This kind of playful, “What will happen next in this loony, twisted universe!?” works well in two-hour increments—but a whole season of not really having a handle on the "rules"? OUAT at least eased us into the ways of the Fairy Tale Land while real, understandable threats were still in play. As we learned that Regina was the Evil Queen, we were fretting that she would keep Henry from seeing Emma. As we learned of Regina’s ability to rip out and crush hearts, we were worrying that Snow White would be, um, indicted for murder. There was a balance between issuing threats we could understand and laying the foundation for a scary Fairy Tale Land. But Wonderland has to continually explain to us what the hell is going on, and the scene-to-scene pacing sometimes feels like a long rambling story being told by a little kid who's making it up as he goes along. Also, David Bowie face paint?
Here’s the thing: I honestly like how weird this show is. I would rather have 10 shows just like it instead of one more CSI: Quivering Victims Unit. If I were traveling to, say, Turkey, and I found this show on the TV in my hotel but it was in Turkish and I couldn’t understand the dialogue, I would be endlessly intrigued and not rest until I’d Googled it and figured out what the hell I was watching. These days, you just don’t see pure fantasy on this scale outside of Syfy Original Movies, and I appreciate the naïve escapism of it.
Which leads me to believe that Wonderland could make for absolutely riveting hate-watching. Not like hate hate-watching, but like, WTF-this-is-so-insane-watching. I know it's early, but Wonderland’s best bet might be to just go so far off the rails that it veers into camp (the fairy named Silvery Mist? It’s halfway there), or to be so visually surreal that it attracts stoners like no other (it’s more than halfway there). I don’t want this show to fail, but I'm also not exactly on the edge of my seat wondering what next week’s episode is going to be, and that needs to change.
Another problem: There’s only one through-line so far: Will Alice free Cyrus? We know this is something that won’t be resolved until at least the end of the season. Fleshing out the dashing Knave of Hearts would really, really help. Hell, where’s the freaking White Queen? Doesn’t she have beef with the Red Queen? Is she going to be played by Anne Hathaway? How about a Jabberwocky?
Anyway, I digress. Let's quickly rewind the tape to the beginning: Naveen Andrews was laying the full weight of his Juilliard-caliber acting into a Jafar-heavy episode (with SO much commitment and dedication, and geez honestly I just love him):
The proceedings kicked off with Jafar almost getting his hands on the bottle and explaining how Cyrus the Genie's previous owner wished him as far away from Agrabah as possible, which is how Cyrus ended up in Wonderland. We learned why our over-the-top villains are pursuing Cyrus so hard: They want to fundamentally change magic! We began to understand the mechanics of the conflict: Alice decided never to make her wishes so that Cyrus would never stop being hers, and thus, to gain control of Cyrus, Jafar and the Red Queen will have to compel or trick Alice into making her wishes. Then Cyrus will be returned to his bottle, and then whoever rubs that bottle next will become his new master and get the next three wishes. Story checks out, great! I love that Alice refused to make her wishes to keep Cyrus with her always, that’s very romantic! The Red Queen now has the bottle, and Jafar has Cyrus, who's encased in a silver cage—which, much like vampires, genies cannot withstand. The math checks out on this story logic! Fantastic!
But this information was gathered via some rather tedious grandstanding by our two Big Bads, who spent the evening twirling their respective mustaches (note: neither one has a mustache) as if they were performing Children’s Theatre for exceptionally dumb kiddos. Jafaaahhh menaced the Red Queen again. The Red Queen menaced the rabbit. John Lithgow cashed some checks.
Interspersed throughout were some extremely sweet scenes between Cyrus and Alice that were just too darn precious. And I mean really they were TOO precious. Like didn’t they ever have a disagreement? There was no tension. Snow and Charming spent at least a few episodes in a will-they-won’t-they dance, but Alice and Cyrus were in sync from day one like five '90s heartthrobs in baggy denim outfits.
Of course, the Knave of Hearts and Alice are spending a lot of time together. They could fall in love in an upcoming episode, or maybe the Knave will be in love with Alice and he'll rub the genie bottle and then he will face the question of whether to make the selfless choice to not use his wishes so Alice can be with the man she loves (and not the Knave). Or maybe he uses a wish to make Alice fall in love with him, or… see, there are some interesting conflict possibilities here, but they're hovering far off in the future. Wonderland doesn't have the immediate conflict of Storybrooke, where Emma was chainsawing an apple tree on her second day in town and also sleeping in her car.
Alice suffered through about 30 seconds of wondering whether Cyrus had actually given up on her, but we already knew he was sending her an origami-style email and then she got it and was like Oh cool, we still love each other. Tension over.
Basically, more problems is what we need. More problems and fewer emptyess threats. And keep the crazy coming! I don’t want to see this show fail, but I also don't want to see this show as badly as I want to see OUAT from week to week, and that comparison is not flattering.
… What do you think would improve the show?
… Could Once Upon a Time in Wonderland potentially draw a crowd just for its visual daring?
… Is ABC's Thursday-at-8pm time period just cursed, or was it unfair to start Wonderland there?
... What did you think of this episode?
AIRED ON 4/3/2014
Season 1 : Episode 13