April 4, 2014

THE SKED Series Finale Review: “Once Upon A Time In Wonderland”


Would ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND have fared better if scheduled as originally planned, in the role of Sunday 8PM filler between the two half-seasons of its parent Once Upon A Time, instead of being sent to fend for itself on Thursdays?  In the short term, probably so, as Once fans might well have stuck with the timeslot for somewhat familiar entertainment.  Eventually, though, the shortcomings of the spin-off would have caught up with it, and in addition to being canceled in its own right (as it already has been), it might have damaged the bigger Once franchise more than it could from its Thursday outpost.  So perhaps in the end ABC was better off to have it where it was.

Wonderland sounded like such a reasonable proposition on paper:  gather together Once creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, as well as two other senior writers from the series, Zack Estrin and Jane Espenson (Estrin served as showrunner while Kitsis and Horowitz were running the mothership), and tell a similar but distinct adventure set in a land that Once had visited just occasionally, so it wasn’t completely unknown, but also wouldn’t be burdened by an overwhelming amount of mythology already in place.  The heroine would be an Alice (Sophie Lowe) reimagined as a spunky young woman for the Katniss Everdeen generation, and along with Lewis Carroll figures like the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) and the White Rabbit (a CG figure voiced by John Lithgow), other major components of the tale would come from another part of ABC/Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the world of Aladdin (although without the title character), notably the evil wizard Jafar (Naveen Andrews) as villain and a new genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot).  Just for fun, the other lead would be a refugee from the land of Robin Hood, Will Scarlett AKA the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha).  Add sorcery, romance, questing and a few bizarre CG creatures, and voila!

Except not so much.  Wonderland lacked the spark of Once Upon A Time almost from the start, and it was instructive (to viewers, and hopefully for the show’s creators) about what makes Once tick as well as it does.  For one thing, Wonderland lacked a homebase like Storybrooke (Once‘s town was visited once or twice in the course of Wonderland–but it was always deserted, perhaps so none of the Once stars had to be paid), a recognizable place that helps to ground the Once characters, however surrounded they are by fantasy, in a relatable universe with familiar codes of behavior.  The “present-day” of Wonderland, to the extent it existed, was Victorian England, mostly seen as a horror of asylums that threatened lobotomies and mean, uncomprehending relatives.  (The almost exclusively fantastic setting of Wonderland also meant that it was shot on digital sets even more of the time than Once, adding a visual sense to the overall feeling of unreality.)

The show’s biggest failure, though, came with its characters.  Unlike Once, which features family relationships in addition to romance, Wonderland went all in on true love.  Sadly, Alice and her Cyrus were a terribly bland pair; when we met them, they were already mid-love story (Alice had left Wonderland thinking Cyrus dead), and although the show insisted on the bliss of their reunion, it never had much emotional impact.  In fact, in the early sections of the show, which had Will and Alice traveling together while she tried to rescue Cyrus, Wonderland seemed to be setting us up for a triangle that the Knave would ultimately win, because Lowe had much more chemistry with Socha than with Gadiot.  Will’s own star-crossed story with the Queen was more interesting, but the scripts played the card of the Queen, who came from humble beginnings, changing from bad to good to bad again too many times, and it didn’t help that when being regal, Rigby spoke with a put-on hauteur that just sounded weird and sometimes incomprehensible.  (For his ingenuity in finding some semblance of sparks with both leading women, Socha is reportedly being promoted to a regular role on Once itself.)  The other major character, arch-villain Jafar, was never more than a cardboard baddie, without any of the complications of Once‘s Regina, or even its Peter Pan.

The finale, written by Kitsis, Horowitz and Estrin, and directed by Kari Skogland, brought the show’s storylines to an expected climax, as Jafar was able to assemble the pieces he needed to change the rules of magic, allowing him to bring back the dead (a crossover with The Walking Dead or Resurrection was thisclose!), make the Queen “fall in love” with him, and change the past–but even his overwhelming magic couldn’t keep the Queen from remembering her true feelings for Will, and through some mumbo-jumbo with a magic puddle and a CG witch, Jafar was turned into a genie himself, all the characters were set free from their various curses (well, except for Cyrus’s mother and Jafar’s father, who both stayed dead), and the White Rabbit and his wife (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) attended Alice’s and Cyrus’s wedding back in Victorian England, where the sight of giant talking rabbits didn’t seem to perturb the rest of the guests at all.

So happy ever after, except for the people who worked on Once Upon A Time in Wonderland, and the network, and unfortunately the viewers.  The good news is that the current Wicked Witch arc of Once is the strongest it’s been all season, and with Resurrection as a neighbor, the ratings are robust as well.  So off with their heads, but only the spin-off’s.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."