Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pilot Review: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (Thursdays at 8:00 on ABC)

After a messy, convoluted, bloated, cheesy, mostly unsuccessful second season, Once Upon a Time needed an injection of new blood. So creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz did it; but rather than giving the jolt of energy to the flailing ABC drama, they put it into a new show instead: the clunkily-titled Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. More of an extension than a spin-off, since it doesn't feature any characters from the parent series, Wonderland is nonetheless the shot of espresso this now-franchise needed to seem exciting again. And despite some stumbles, it's just that: exciting.

In Victorian London, young adult Alice (Australian actress Sophie Lowe) is committed to an asylum after telling stories of a magical world she has visited: Wonderland. Her doctors, led by the hilariously anti-feminist Dr. Lydgate (Jonny Coyne, Alcatraz), want to perform a new procedure that will make her forget all about these tall tales and take away the pain she still feels over losing her true love, a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot) who is presumed dead by the Red Queen's (Emma Rigby) hands on the other side of the rabbit hole. Alice, wishing her pain to end as well, consents to the procedure. But before it can be performed, the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) break her out of the hospital and transport her back to Wonderland, where they take up the search for Cyrus in hopes that he's still alive.

The set-up in the Victorian hospital, complete with many flashbacks to Alice's memories of Wonderland, is fantastically realized. These first twenty minutes are gorgeous to look at and absorb, thanks mostly to the stunning presence of Sophie Lowe. She's so grounded, so unconventionally beautiful, and so understated compared to her surroundings, that Alice feels like a brand new character. Her tete-a-tete with Dr. Lydgate is a lot of fun, mostly because he's written to be so ridiculous (he psychoanalyzes Alice to be a silly girl wanting attention, obviously a foil to the fact that she's an entire world's hero back in Wonderland). The first appearance of the sarcastic Knave and uppity Rabbit add to the silly fun, so by the time Alice started doing kung fu against a bunch of burly orderlies, I was smiling despite myself.

Things in Wonderland don't live up to the opening, unfortunately. Wonderland takes a page from its parent series' playbook and starts to overstuff itself at this point: with characters, with timeline shifts (How exactly do two key characters move from present day Storybrooke to Victorian England within this one episode?), and with effects. Also like Once Upon a Time, the pilot's effects are a mixed bag; some look great, some look like Windows screensavers (the Cheshire Cat, voiced by Keith David, is a prime example of the latter, so poorly drawn as to make most SyFy original movies look high-tech). There's also the strange addition to the story of the Aladdin villain Jafar, played by Lost's Naveen Andrews. The genie Cyrus is another odd-man-out character, but I understand that he's there to create a love interest for Alice and so they can share the common ground of both being strangers. But why Jafar? Because he's a Disney character, so why not? Wonderland has enough strange creatures of its own without adding Arab folktales on top of it. It doesn't help that Jafar's one scene in the pilot is badly written and laughably, campily acted by Andrews and Rigby as the Whore of Babylon-ish Red Queen (both just need ugly CGI mustaches to twirl).

Even still, there's a sweetness to Wonderland that is sorely lacking in Once Upon a Time. Whereas the flagship series depends mostly on audience recognition of familiar beloved characters to drive the "story," whatever that may be, Wonderland has a sentimental drive to it. It's undeniably saccharine, occasionally bordering on annoying, in its approach to the well-tread Lewis Carroll tale, but there are at least some stories worth exploring here: one of redemption, one of deception, and one of love. And, for what it's worth, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is off to a more promising start than Once Upon a Time had two years ago at this time. Hopefully it will hold up better in future episodes as well.

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