October 13, 2013

TV: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (Thu 8, ABC)

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is a sort of spinoff from Once Upon a Time, but only just barely; it's a spinoff of concept, rather than of characters. Once again, we're following familiar storybook characters on their travels between their worlds and this one. There's a very brief prologue set in Storybrooke, the village from the original series, just to establish that the shows share the same continuity, but the producers have said that the shows will be independent of one another, and they don't plan to do major crossovers.

We begin with Alice, just returning from her famous visit to Wonderland, and immediately thrown into an asylum when she tells her father of her adventures. Jump forward a few years, and Alice is now a young woman whose doctors are convinced that she's lying (and therefore still delusional) when she tells them that she no longer believes that she went to another land.

She's rescued from the asylum in the nick of time by the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), who take her back to Wonderland. When she learns that Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), the genie with whom she fell in love during her original visit (which somehow never made it into Lewis Carroll's telling of the tale), might not be dead after all, she sets out on a quest to find him.

If you're thinking that you don't remember any genies in Wonderland, well, this is sort of a hybrid between Alice and the Disney version of Aladdin. The genie Jafar (Naveen Andrews) is one of the show's principal villains, teaming up with the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) in a plot to capture Alice for some as yet unknown reason.

The show looks marvelous, and its fantasy landscapes are very different from those of the original Once Upon a Time. Much of it is CGI, and the integration of the actors into the virtual sets is occasionally a bit clunky, but there are beautiful images like the Red Queen's castle, which looks as if it's been cobbled together from a giant chess set.

Casting is generally solid. Andrews is an ideal choice for Jafar; and Lowe, Socha, and Gadiot are attractive leads (the show is none too subtle about the love triangle that must inevitably develop). As the Red Queen, Rigby is the weak link, aiming for the same camp glory that Lana Parilla hits in the parent show, and not quite getting there.

Lithgow's voice performance is less manic than I'd have expected, but it works. Voice casting is one of the show's strengths, with Keith David providing a deliciously sinister Cheshire Cat; Iggy Pop only has a very brief appearance in the first episode as the Caterpillar, but seems like an interesting choice.

My hunch is that this show will burn out and fizzle from special to merely competent even faster than the original did, but it's only scheduled as a 13-episode season, and it should have enough juice to stay entertaining for at least that long.

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