TV spinoff takes viewers down the rabbit hole

Fantasy and reality collided once again on Thursday with the premiere of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland on ABC. The show is a spinoff of Once Upon a Time, now in its third season.

The show takes place within the Once Upon a Time universe, but follows Alice (Sophie Lowe) of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as she searches for her lost love Cyrus (Peter Gadiot) in Wonderland, with the help of the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) and the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha).

As in Once Upon a Time, familiar aspects of the story are contrasted by deviations from the Lewis Carroll classic, especially in character. In this first episode, Alice knows full well that the mushroom will change her size, and uses it accordingly to flee from the Queen’s soldiers by shrinking herself and hiding in the bottle lying beside the pathway. Alice discovers that her convenient hiding spot is actually a genie bottle inhabited by Cyrus, who is willing to open his bottle to her, even after she threatens to eat the other mushroom half and shatter the bottle with her sudden growth spurt. Instead of the meek, curious little girl we all know, this Alice is a strong character who is not afraid to face danger to get what she wants.

Alice and Cyrus become fast friends, and eventually fall in love, but in the exact moment that everything seems to fall into place for the lovers, the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) shows up. During the fight that ensues, Cyrus is pushed off a ledge into the boiling sea that lies below.

Flashbacks to Alice’s time in Wonderland are intercut with inquiries into her mental health, taking place at Bedlam Hospital in Victorian England. Wonderland is filled with vibrant colors and familiar scenes, such as Alice stealing a bit of magical mushroom and fleeing from the Queen of Hearts who screams “Off with her head!” Meanwhile, the colors of Bedlam are muted and dark; gloom pervades the place.

Alice escapes from Bedlam and goes back to Wonderland under the impression that Cyrus is alive. It is revealed to the viewer that the Rabbit has lured her back by order of the Queen, who’s working with Aladdin villain Jafar (Naveen Andrews). He’s after the wishes that Cyrus gave Alice, but the Queen’s motives remain secret for now.

Meanwhile, the Knave is reluctant to stay in Wonderland, unwilling to risk being discovered and punished for the things he did after Alice left. Although their initial search for Cyrus fails, Alice finds Cyrus’s amulet, a token that glows when she is near, and gains renewed hope that he is alive. She convinces the Knave to stay by promising to pay him in wishes.

In the final scenes, a flashback to Cyrus’s supposed death reveals that he was caught by Jafar on a flying carpet and is the Queen’s captive, imprisoned in a cage.

The first episode benefits from the set-up established by Once Upon a Time and the familiar story of Alice, so the show can jump right into the narrative. The weaknesses of the show will come not from the story, but from the production details. Since the show will presumably be set in Wonderland most of the time, viewers may get distracted by the low-quality graphics that make up the background and characters like the Rabbit or the Cheshire Cat.

Although Alice and Cyrus are the star-crossed lovers here, it is the chemistry between Alice and the Knave that compels viewers most. It becomes obvious that the Knave really cares about Alice — in a platonic way — and is staying not just for the payment, but also to make sure she stays safe.

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland airs Thursdays at
8 p.m. on ABC.