Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Once Upon A Time has one of the highest buy-ins in all of television. Upfront, viewers need to push past several levels of artificial cheese—including terrible special effects and gratingly earnest scripts—and a premise that doesn’t once wink, daring viewers to take it seriously. The mythology is needlessly complicated, the storytelling revolves around largely pointless busywork, and too much of the show is taken up with unnecessary contrivance. Yet, when the program works—usually when long-lost lovers are reunited or when some fundamental truth is exposed—it’s surprisingly easy to get past all of that to the show’s core, which is old-fashioned, family TV that’s refreshingly straightforward about its aims.
The program’s first spinoff, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, has many of the same problems of its parent series. At one point, a Keith David-voiced Cheshire Cat hops around like a glitch in a video game. But the show has still added on a surprising touch of darker maturity, making for a sort of Return To Oz when compared to the parent series. Does it work? Not entirely. But Once Upon A Time In Wonderland is intended to be a one-off season that tells one particular story, and that gives the program a momentum that carries it past its moments of outright stupidity, of which there are more than a few.
For the spinoff, Once Upon A Time creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, working closely with longtime writers Zack Estrin and Jane Espenson, chose to change the setting, leaving the popular characters and storylines alone. The series’ first episode opens with a little girl’s tea party set, covered in cobwebs, before the ground rumbles with earthquake-like energy, a portal appearing and issuing forth a young girl, soon revealed as Alice from Lewis Carroll’s famed novels. Yet, where Carroll’s tales very obviously posited Alice’s adventures as a strange dream (and the Disney movie based on that novel did the same), Once Upon A Time creates a world where Alice has been gone for months, her parents having given up on finding her. This continues through her adolescence, her connection to Earth growing more and more tenuous, until she finally discovers the love of her life—a genie—who’s in Wonderland as well. Naturally, once she returns to Earth, she lands in a mental hospital, making the connections to Return To Oz all the more explicit.
The opening half of this episode sets this up with a breathlessness and alacrity that the rest of the episode can’t match. Aside from an unnecessary detour to Storybrooke (the setting for the parent series), the first 20 minutes move, even when they’re engaged in outright cheese. Once Upon A Time has always existed in a universe of true love and magical kisses, and there’s a fair amount of that, but there are also threats of invasive procedures designed to remove Alice’s memories of Wonderland, creating a subtle hint of danger. It raises the question, “What happens when fantasy and reality collide?” The series suggests that fantasy will win every time, because it feels real.
The problem is that the episode can’t really keep this up. Once events move to Wonderland proper, everything collapses into a fairly rote quest narrative. This is another improvement on the parent series, where the overriding narrative thrust meanders even at the best of times, but the search for Alice’s missing genie-lover proves both helpful and hindering. It keeps that impressive momentum going, but it also increasingly robs the episode of the darker tone that set it apart. There’s a sequence where two characters are trapped in marshmallow quicksand that feels like it belongs in another series entirely because of the scene’s brighter tone.
Fortunately, the producers have assembled a terrific cast of actors who will be mostly unknown to American audiences. As Alice, Sophie Lowe proves a terrifically compelling anchor, just as likely to take someone out with a mean right hook as she is to tear up over the distress created by her movement in and out of each world. In particular, her chemistry with Peter Gadiot is potent enough to suggest just why she would plunge endlessly into some other world. As the series’ main villain, Emma Rigby plays every scene with a heightened sense of camp that threatens to tear down all that is around her, but Naveen Andrews has a nicely understated sense of menace as Aladdin villain Jafar. (It’s also possible this is just Andrews feeling mildly embarrassed at having to play Jafar.) The voice cast is also great, with Iggy Pop essaying The Caterpillar and John Lithgow turning a nattily dressed, foul-mouthed-for-Disney White Rabbit into a kind of fairy tale version of The Doctor from Doctor Who.
The series seems equally pitched between good—Lowe, a solid writing staff, and that mournful tone—and bad—Michael Socha as a helpful rogue who joins Alice on her quest and is already wearing thin by the end of the first episode—but for those who’ve enjoyed the parent series, even ironically, it stands as just enough of an improvement to recommend. The original Once Upon A Time always had a huge buy-in, but much of that came from how the series seemed, at all times, to lack purpose. This version, however, never lacks for a reason to keep moving, to keep pushing, and to keep searching. That alone might be enough to keep this particular tale spinning.
Created by: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Jane Espenson, Zack Estrin
Starring: Sophie Lowe, Michael Socha, Peter Gadiot, Emma Rigby, Naveen Andrews
Debuts: Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Hour-long fantasy drama
One episode watched for review