After the disappointment that Once Upon A Time has become, I really shouldn’t be started another show by the same writers in the same universe. Ever since it was announced, the clunkily titled Once Upon A Time in Wonderland has seemed a bit… unnnecessary. Once has always had some good characters and ideas, but it’s let down, again and again, by truly painful writing and an apparent lack of long-term vision. Who would expect a spinoff series to be any different?
Well, after a rather glowing recommendation from a friend, I checked out the first two episodes of the new show. And I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Really. Whether or not you watch Once Upon A Time, this might well be one to watch.
First, Alice is a rather interesting badass. It makes sense that Alice in Wonderland would grow up to be rather fearless, bold and brave, intelligent, resourceful, and adaptable to any situation. She’s also rather ruthless — instead of being concerned about pure goodness to an eye-roll-worthy degree, like some of our heroes in Once Upon A Time, she is willing to do whatever is necessary to get things done. She is, in short, a fairly typical adventuring hero. Except that she’s also a girl.
Which brings us to the most exciting element of the show. The main plot is a subversion of the typical “damsel in distress” narrative. Alice’s true love Cyrus has been captured by Jafar, and she is determined to find and rescue him. Beyond sending the very occasional message, there’s nothing that Cyrus can do (at least at the moment) except sit in a cage and wait for Alice to find him. For once, the guy in the couple plays the Princess Zelda role, while the girl is the one who must use all her brains and skill and risks life and limb to save him.
As a concept, I’m kind of in love with it.
In her travels, Alice also has a non-romantic male sidekick, the Knave of Hearts, otherwise known as Will. He’s a wanted man and kind of a jerk at times, and the fact that he’s the only consistent person around her means that the show isn’t a Bechdel pass by a longshot. But he makes for an interesting dynamic — he doesn’t want to be there, he’s mostly only out for himself, and he needs rescuing more than occasionally, but trust and reliance is gradually developing between them. Because who wants to adventure alone?
As far as the villains go, they’re better than most of the ones that Once has seen in recent years, although the why of them is still somewhat hard to puzzle out. Naveen Andrews makes a decent Jafar, even managing to capture the tone of voice of the movie character, and although the Red Queen occasionally seems somewhat bland, her alliance with and battle against the far-more-powerful Jafar has some real potential for the future. And lest we think that all non-white characters in the Once world are either evil or dead, Alice’s genie love interest is also a POC. He’s played by a Mexican-Dutch actor, rather than a Middle Eastern one, but it’s a start.
And the writing? It’s less cringe-worthy and more consistent than Once Upon A TIme has been, well, ever. You’re probably not going to be swooning over the perfect dialogue, but it hasn’t made me want to roll my eyes yet, and there are some clever touches.
All in all, it looks like a promising little mini-series! The protagonist is fun, the costumes are pretty, and it’s definitely different from most TV fantasy fare right now, in a good way.
Just don’t watch it in HD. The CGI is too painful for words.