If you’re a devotee of the works of Lewis Carroll, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” will probably make you cringe more than once. If, however, you’re a fan of the original “Once Upon a Time” — and of smart, competent female heroes — you’ll probably find a good deal to like in ABC’s new series.
The story of a grown-up Alice (Sophie Lowe), who has been haunted by her memories of Wonderland ever since visiting as a little girl, features sumptuous visuals and a couple of strong central performances from Lowe and Michael Socha as the Knave of Hearts. It’s a little weaker on the villainous side of things, unfortunately, and its central romance is less than swoon-inducing at the outset. All the better to create a triangle, perhaps.
“Wonderland” isn’t a spinoff of “OUAT” per se, at least not in the way we usually think of them. “Once Upon a Time” has already featured the Mad Hatter (Sebastian Stan) and Queen of Hearts (Barbara Hershey), but aside from a brief scene in Storybrooke and a couple allusions to the Hatter, Thursday’s (Oct. 10) “Wonderland” premiere is very much in its own world.
We first meet Alice as a child upon her return from her first visit to Wonderland. Her arrival back home shocks her father, who had assumed she was dead, and her story about everything she saw there brings in the head of an asylum, Dr. Lydgate (Jonny Coyne), who promises her father he can cure Alice of her delusions.
Some years later, Dr. Lydgate confronts the adult Alice, who has returned several times and fallen in love with Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), a genie, only to see him plunge to his apparent death at the hands of the Red Queen (Emma Rigby). Just before she’s about to receive what looks very much like a lobotomy, the Knave shows up with news that Cyrus may still be alive, and off they go.
If you don’t recall a genie from Carroll’s stories, don’t worry — it’s not you. As with “OUAT,” “Wonderland” plays fast and loose with its source material, blending elements of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” with pieces of the Disney canon. The Red Queen, for instance, is in cahoots with none other than Jafar (Naveen Andrews) — yep, the villain from “Aladdin.” In an odd sort of way, it works — Andrews brings a much deeper sense of menace to the show than does Rigby, whose character is written initially as more petulant teenager than evil ruler.
It is Lowe’s show, however, and she carries it well. It’s almost as if she’s playing two different characters in the premiere — the emotionally spent young woman confined to an asylum in Victorian England and the determined, resourceful heroine we see in Wonderland. Like her fairy-tale counterparts in “Once Upon a Time,” she feels cursed living in the “real” world, and there’s no question as to where she’d rather make her home. (She’s also apparently picked up some rather useful close-quarters combat skills during her time in Wonderland.)
Lowe’s job of selling Alice’s yearning for Wonderland is all the more remarkable for the fact that her world-spanning love with Cyrus comes off a little bit limp in the premiere. It’s not that Lowe and Gadiot don’t have chemistry, but we skip straight from their meet-cute — she shrinks herself to hide from the Red Queen’s soldiers and takes refuge in his genie bottle — to a marriage proposal and the Queen vanquishing him. The audience is essentially asked to take their great love on faith.
Meanwhile Alice spends much of the episode with the Knave, a charming rogue (Socha’s eyebrows alone may well launch a thousand Tumblrs) who has a stake in helping Alice find Cyrus but also genuinely seems to care about her. Simply by virtue of having agency in the story, the Knave is the more compelling character early on.
The version of the “Wonderland” premiere ABC sent out for review had a number of incomplete visual-effects shots, so it’s somewhat difficult to judge the look of the show. It is safe to say, however, that it does not go small. What is completed — shots of the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) and some of the larger backdrops — is gorgeous.
The flaws in “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” appear to be fixable — we’ll presumably get to see more of the Alice-Cyrus romance in subsequent episodes, for instance. It’s also from the same producing team as the original “OUAT,” which through two seasons and change has kept up its storytelling momentum quite well. Here’s hoping “Wonderland” will be able to live up to its more promising aspects too.
“Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” premieres at 8 p.m. ET Thursday on ABC.