Pilots and Premieres: “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” – Series Premiere

THE SPECS:

Who:  “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” currently airs on network TV, specifically on ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 PM.

What: “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” a spin-off, of sorts, of flagship series “Once Upon a Time.” This fantasy series focuses on Alice, of Wonderland fame, and the love story between her and Cyrus, who seems to be the genie from Aladdin.  So far, none of the characters previously appeared in Once Upon a Time.

When: The series premiered on ABC, Thursday, October 10, 2013, at 8:00 PM.

Where: The show is set in a fictionalized universe at an unidentified time.  Though Alice herself appears to hail from London, she also wears a corset.  Yet, Wonderland, like some of the other storybook settings such as Never Land, is a separate world from the Real World and from other storybook places, and most of the action transpires there.

Why: Once Upon a Time is one of my favorite shows, currently and quite possibly of all time.  “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is one of my favorite books.  It seemed like a no-brainer, really.

How – as in How Was It?

The pilot/premiere rating scale:

***** – I HAVE TO WATCH EVERYTHING.  HOLY SMOKES!

**** – Well, it certainly seems intriguing.  I’m going to keep watching, but I see possible pitfalls in the premise.

*** – I will give it six episodes and see what happens.  There are things I like, and things I don’t.  We’ll see which “things” are allowed to flourish.

** – I will give it three episodes.  Chances are, I’m mainly bored, but there is some intrigue or fascination that could hold it together.  No matter how unlikely.

* – Pass on this one, guys.  It’s a snoozer/not funny/not interesting/not my cup of tea… there are too many options to waste time on this one.

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland = ***1/2

SYNOPSIS

Alice (Sophie Lowe) returned from her initial adventure in Wonderland having been gone “a long time” in the real world.  Though she tries to explain to her father where she has been, her father, predictably, does not believe her and thinks Alice is making the whole story up.  To prove that she is being honest, she somehow finds her way back to Wonderland as a teenager with the hopes of snaring the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), so she can show her father that talking animals do exist.  On her return trip, however, she meets Cyrus, a genie in a bottle, while on the run from the Red Queen’s card guards.  The two instantly fall in love; Alice frees the Genie from his bottle somehow, and they gallivant across the realms, until the Red Queen catches up with them and throws Cyrus over a cliff and seemingly into the Boiling Seas.  Believing her true love to be deceased, Alice finds her way back to the real world, only to be incarcerated in an asylum, as doctors attempt to convince her that she has been a lying little minx the whole time and offer to perform some kind of lobotomy-looking operation to extract that silly imagination of hers once and for all.  Luckily, the Knave of Hearts and the White Rabbit have heard (through well planted information) that Cyrus is alive; they spring Alice from the joint and portal her on over to Wonderland, promising to ally with her and search for the missing genie. Unfortunately, the White Rabbit is coerced into working for the Red Queen, who is, in turn, working for none other than Jafar (Naveen Andrews), the evil sorcerer from Aladdin.  Jafar is after the genie and the wishes he grants; the Red Queen sees fit to stop Alice in her tracks once and for all, and all the poor girl wants is to be reunited with her one and only true love.

THOUGHTS

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (OUAT:W for short) is, tonally, a bit of a mixed bag.  While the main actors, including Lowe and Peter Gadiot (Cyrus) are winning and have chemistry, the rest of the show is kind of a mess.  Though OUAT, the main brand, is a focused story with many beloved characters, OUAT:W is an unfocused story with only a few characters.  It also has little to do with the flagship series, though hopefully Jefferson aka the Mad Hatter will show up soon (doubtful, since his house has been abandoned as of this pilot).

The problems in this series are threefold.  First, the CGI is really bad.  I mean, the characters are clearly acting in front of a green screen, so much so that it sometimes appears like they are weather reporters, indicating to an off-screen monitor changes in the forecast.  While some of the picturesque renditions of Wonderland are not bad when the actors are not present, any time the characters are walking through this fictional universe, it feels a little too much like a children’s story or, perhaps, a show from Disney Jr.

Second, the presence of Jafar and the Genie are so random that this viewer does not quite understand why would they would be in Wonderland at all.  In the OUAT universe, Agrabbah is its own realm and world, like the Enchanted Forest, Never Land, and Wonderland.  Yet, somehow the Genie’s bottle lies dormant in the hedges of the Red Queen’s gardens?  And Jafar strikes up an alliance with this Queen? Where did all that come from?  Hopefully, future episodes will explain it, so long as the show doesn’t suffer cancellation.

Third, the actors other than the two romantic leads are middling at best.  Naveen Andrews, of course, played Sayid on Lost, and this viewer enjoys looking at him more than anything, but he is not a very menacing Jafar.  In the meantime, the Red Queen, played by Emma Rigby, chews the scenery so much, it’s hard to believe that Jafar has any hold over her whatsoever.  And she never once said, “Off with their heads,” in this episode!  The White Rabbit, despite having the sublime Lithgow as his voice, is boring and one dimensional; the Knave of Hearts maybe achieves two dimensions.

This is not to say that the program is all bad, and this viewer will keep watching, so long as the network plays out the story properly (3.5 stars will basically entice me to watch until I can’t anymore, either by choice or by force).  The story of lost love is enough to engage the viewer, particularly since Alice as a character is strong and sassy.  Yet, OUAT:W does not live up to the quality of its parent show, and it is quite evident from the ratings that its survival into the second half of the season is in danger.

RECOMMENDATION

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is an entertaining enough show to appease fans of the original Once Upon a Time.  It is unlikely that a wider audience would find this show of its own accord, and the fact that it is on ABC, which is quite possibly the most successful of the big five networks currently, does not bode well for a longer term shot.  Because the quality is something less than the flagship series, anyone who finds this show should not get too attached to it.

THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:

Most ratings watchdog sites are calling OUAT:W “likely to be canceled.”  I predict that ABC will air any remaining episodes, as it was originally planned to be a 13-episode miniseries that could blossom into more if successful.  It is doubtful that this experiment will be attempted a second time, and longer life than the originally planned series is a near-impossibility at this point.  Be forewarned if you decide to watch it.

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