ABC’s fairy-tale mishmash Once Upon a Time can be exciting and fun and sexy and a little badass. It can also be breathtakingly stupid and so corny it makes after-school specials look like Edward Albee plays. So too for its spinoff, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (ABC, 8 p.m.), which has similar virtues and vices. Some scenes are soaringly, beautifully romantic, while others threaten to give viewers spiritual diabetes.
Wonderland takes its predecessor’s approach of combining characters from different stories into one general fantasy world; here, it’s some of the characters you’d recognize from Lewis Carroll (Alice, the White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat), plus some from Disney’s Aladdin (a genie, Jafar). Alice (Sophie Lowe, a sort Saoirse Ronan–lite) begins the pilot in a mental hospital, where she’s being “treated” for standing by her story of having visited Wonderland. While in Wonderland, she had fallen in love with a handsome genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), but the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) seemingly killed him, and thus we find Alice heartbroken, despondent, and incarcerated in a Victorian asylum. But! Just before undergoing an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind love-erasing procedure, Alice is visited by the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (a CGI creature voiced by John Lithgow), who convince her that Cyrus is still alive and that she’d better come back to Wonderland to find him. And we’re off to the races.
Wonderland has no nuance. It’s not elegant or metaphorical at all, and many of the scenes would be at home on an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. (Let’s throw parts of a mushroom … at the Cheshire Cat … before he kills us!) The screener that critics saw did not have finalized visual effects, but if they’re anything like Once Upon a Time’s special effects, they will be cruddy and unconvincing, and not even in an ostentatiously silly way — just in a bad way.
But Once can also be subversive and ticklishly campy. Its heroes are almost all women, and there’s nary a damsel in distress among them — Snow White herself is the one with a sword, killing people. And that’s true on Wonderland, too, where Alice is the one planning to rescue her true love; Knave (as she calls the Knave of Hearts) is the slightly naïve sidekick to whom things must be explained. The villains on Once generally seem like Fairuza Balk in The Craft, just a vessel for teeth and lipstick and maniacal shrieking. Again, same on Wonderland: Naveen Andrews (yes, Sayid from Lost) plays Jafar as an ultraintense super villain who’s two seconds away from growing a mustache just so he can twirl it. One might even call it cartoonish — and it is, because it is literally based on a cartoon.
And that makes the show almost a relief. Wonderland isn’t very good, but it’s also not vile. It’s not exploitative; it’s not racist; it’s not misogynistic. (More of an accomplishment than you’d think.) It’s not a reality show that treats poor people as a spectacle; it’s not a celebreality show that commercializes human identity. It’s not a cop show. It is not a lawyer show, and it is not a doctor show. So far, no raping. So far, no vampires. So far, no tortured middle-aged white dude antiheroes.
At one point in the pilot, Alice warns Knave that he should be careful what he wishes for — it might come true, but not exactly how he planned. “Wishes can be unpredictable,” she says. “With wishes, sometimes there’s literally a string attached.” I know what she means. I’ve wished for a show that rows against the current of TV trends that I’ve grown tired of. And my wish came true! I just should have been more specific and wished for a better show.