October 11, 2013

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



ABC ordered ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND to series on the basis of a 20-minute presentation, which was then expanded to one-hour (with commercials) length for tonight’s series premiere.  That may explain why the initial section of the premiere, written by series creators Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Jane Espenson and Zack Estrin, is something of a mess, a force-feed of exposition.  It intercuts between a “real-world” Victorian lunatic asylum where a panel of menacing physicians are interviewing Alice (Sophie Lowe) about her delusions of a life spent in far-off Wonderland, and Alice’s memories of that life, introducing us as quickly as the script can manage to Alice’s love, the genie Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), her sidekicks the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and a digitally-animated White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), and her foe the Red Queen (Emma Rigby).  Once her story is done and Cyrus has been sent by the Queen plummeting into the Boiling Sea to his certain death, the present-time Alice agrees to a lobotomy to free her of her sad memories, and you can almost hear the writers sigh with relief, as the plot can then proceed straightforwardly.

Also awkward:  that Wonderland is in any meaningful way other than general style related to Once Upon A Time at all.  Apart from a brief prologue sequence that plants the Knave in Storybrooke for no particular reason (and with no major characters from Once appearing, although there’s a cameo from Emma’s car), Wonderland isn’t connected to Once, and even though Once has occasionally visited Wonderland and the Mad Hatter is a recurring character on that show, none of the Once versions of that land show up.

Although there’s certainly a resemblance in the visuals, and in the basic concepts of children’s tales rebooted for older, contemporary sensibilities and the mash-up of classics, Wonderland appears to be a somewhat different kind of show than Once.  There’s no modern-day story to ground the fantasy and thus little of Once‘s humor (only the Knave knows what smores are), and no shifting of time-frames or dimensions–once Wonderland arrives at its titular location, it stays there.  That journey is precipitated by the Knave’s arrival at Alice’s asylum, with the news that the White Rabbit has seen Cyrus alive.  This rouses Alice from her malaise and desire to have her memory wiped, and she goes back with the two of them to Wonderland.  What she doesn’t know is that the Rabbit is in league with the Red Queen, who is in league with the even-more-evil Jafar from Aladdin (Naveen Andrews), in a plot to bring Alice back, because they need her to use all her wishes before they can accomplish their nefarious aims.  But Cyrus is in fact alive, a prisoner of Jafar, so Alice’s quest isn’t a futile one.

Wonderland is a diverting romantic adventure, and Lowe is a spunky, appealing Alice who pairs up well with Socha’s Knave (better than she does with Gadiot’s Cyrus).  On first glance, though, the show seems to lack a lot of what made Once Upon A Time exciting.  The Red Queen appears to be Regina all over again, but without the ambiguities, and Jafar lacks only a moustache to twirl (he curls his curly locks instead).  While Once had lots of different relationships going on, with Snow White and Charming’s romance just one of them (and subordinate to the mother-son bonds between Henry and both Emma and Regina), Wonderland starts off with just Alice’s hunt for Cyrus, although with the Once writer/producers guiding the show, there certainly may be more interesting twists to come.  For now, there’s nothing as catchy here as the curse that kept Storybrooke’s residents from knowing their true identities, although the mash-ups will continue, with Oz clearly on the way.

Because all of Wonderland takes place in fantasy locales, it’s even more tied to CG settings than Once is, and while some of the visuals are quite beautiful, others look like people standing in front of projections.  However, at least in the premiere, the animation of both the White Rabbit and a murderous Cheshire Cat is excellent.  Ralph Hemecker, who’s directed many episodes of Once, gives the premiere a consistent look and handsome sheen.

ABC is taking a significant risk with Wonderland, which was originally designed to air as a filler between the two halves of Once‘s season, and was later promoted to free-standing series.  Once itself is far from the smash hit it was two years ago, and its ratings are now above-average but not remarkable. Wonderland, with no characters, storylines or settings from the original show, may have a hard time duplicating its success.  Nor are fantasy adventures hard to find on the networks these days, although Thursday 8PM puts Wonderland against only sitcoms and FOX’s reality shows (and Vampire Diaries on CW).  With its cobbled together premiere out of the way, Wonderland will have to prove it can provoke wonder from viewers on its own.


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."