You think you know the tale of Alice in Wonderland? Think again. Much like the way ABC’s hit series Once Upon A Time has turned fairytales as we know them on their heads, the newest offering from former LOST scribes Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz isn’t exactly a replica of the stories we’ve grown up hearing about. Of course, there’s a white rabbit (voiced by the wonderful John Lithgow), an evil queen, some magical moments, and a very wise (and very hookah-smoking) caterpillar. But there’s also a dark, human element to Alice’s story that makes the show more edgy than fantastical, more intriguing than playful, and more ominous than trippy.
In this version, which toggles between taking place in Victorian England as well as the fantasy world of Wonderland, Alice is a young girl who has been detained in a mental asylum for her “inventive” stories. Brought before a committee of very skeptical older men who sniff at the possibilities of magic and imagination, Alice is forced to defend her beliefs about Wonderland’s magical world. As she does so, we as the viewer learn how Alice found love and turmoil through the genie Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the Red Queen (Emma Rigby.) We’ll see more from each character as the series moves forward, but as far as first impressions go, Rigby is delightful as a young Red Queen and Gadiot is positively charming as the lonely-in-love genie.
Wonderland employs Once’s (and to a latter extent, LOST’s) flashback play, at least in the pilot episode, though I have a hunch we’ll be seeing more of Victorian England as the series moves forward. Throughout the hour, we learn about the very real nature of Alice’s adventures while simultaneously being grounded in the “real world” of non-believers. It’s an interesting way to balance a show that plays on the ideas of parents who don’t believe in us, and adults who try to stifle our creativity. And if most people expect Wonderland to be a mirror of its sister show, they should think again. (Though, without giving away too many spoilers, there is a well-done tie-in to Once Upon A Time that nicely sets up the narrative.) Separate from the fact that the series is meant to play like more like an American Horror Story saga rather than a tightly wound mythology series, its true strength lies in its darker components – the sinister grown-ups who, it seems, will go to any extent to silence Alice’s imagination, and the fun and intriguing look of the Wonderland world. Certainly, for all its popularity, Alice in Wonderland was never a squeaky clean tale, as much as the animated version led us to believe it to be so – and the series definitely takes advantage of this, with successful results.
The previews promote that “this is Alice like you’ve never seen her before,” and newcomer Sophie Lowe steps up to the challenge, doing a commendable job of balancing the naïve nature of the character while giving her a strong sense of independence. Lowe wasn’t the only one who impressed me throughout the hour – and in fact, given that a majority of the main cast has little experience in the American television world, I was truly fascinated by the amount of maturity and depth that they all exhibited.
While I initially thought it was a shame that ABC didn’t choose to air Once Upon A Time In Wonderland as a hiatus type series to fill in the inevitable gaps that Once will suffer from in a few months – both from a viewer perspective and a fan perspective – Wonderland holds its own and gives off a magical vibe independent of the fairytale saga. Having it air concurrently may make those differences more apparent, and for a show that is striving to be as independent as its heroine, that’s a very good move indeed.
Once Upon A Time In Wonderland premieres Thursday, Oct. 10 at 8/7c on ABC.