The long, prime-time love affair that CBS has sustained with specially gifted crime solvers is what ABC seems to desire with its corporate access to a vast library of Disney-owned stories and characters. The spinoff ideas are potentially limitless, even if the actual storytelling runs dry.
“Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” (premiering Thursday night at 8) can therefore be viewed as a sort of discounted package trip for the whole family to a theme park where they keep the basic idea (minus the Victorian-era political allusions) of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 story of Alice, the girl who stepped through the Looking Glass and saw all those freaky things — rabbits, Mad Hatters, worms, Cheshire cats, etc. (Carroll’s original story has long been in public domain, but Disney has rights over its 1951 animated treatment of the work.)
In tone and execution, “Wonderland” strongly mimics the network’s “Snow White”-derived “Once Upon a Time,” now in its third season. Both shows shape their imaginary worlds and characters into a modern riff on the pulpy adventure/romance; even the computer-generated mountain vistas and pastel sunsets tend to evoke the painterly schmaltz of Harlequin novels. I think of the people who might love this show and I see living rooms filled with plushie animals, doll collections and Yankee candles. Which, I’m the first to admit, is a big chunk of American TV watchers who need programming to call their own. They deserve a little better than this.
For others, “Wonderland” will probably be an instant overdose of silliness; harsher critics would even deem it junky. It is a little silly and it is a little junky, but it also has moments where it feels authentically spunky and fun, finding the “curiouser and curiouser” spirit of menace and humor in Carroll’s original tales.
“Once Upon a Time in Wonderland’s” best asset is Sophie Lowe as Alice, a young Englishwoman of the 19th century who’s been institutionalized after insisting that she’s spent much of the past several years down a rabbit hole, drinking serums and eating mushrooms and, eventually, falling in love with a handsome genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot). No sooner had she agreed to marry him than he was tossed into the Boiling Sea by the evil Red Queen (Emma Rigby).
Just before Alice is set to undergo a “painful” procedure (lobotomy?) to make her forget her delusions, the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) and the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) show up to help her escape the asylum and take her back to Wonderland, where, they say, Cyrus is still alive and needs her help.
ABC sent critics the pilot episode just the other day, and even this version had on-screen disclaimers that the visual effects were not quite finished — making the whole enterprise feel like a rabbit dash toward an impossible deadline. Even the parts that are finished still have a cheapness and hokeyness to them that doesn’t do “Wonderland” any favors. The opening episode also jerks us backward and forward too much among Alice’s many trips between dimensions.
And, once you’re in “Wonderland,” you might remember how dense and unfortunately dour life is there. Personally, the only time I ever enjoyed Alice’s trip to Wonderland was in an old Tom Petty music video. Every creature and person is a threat to Alice and vice versa. Characters like the rabbit and knave are uppity and untrustworthy; they steal and lie. There are no ready-made friendships here like there are in, say, Oz. As soon as you get there, you feel like you’re ready to leave.
(one hour) premieres Thursday
at 8 p.m. on ABC.