“Once Upon a Time” started with enormous promise — graced with an intriguing, marketable idea and a beautifully realized pilot. As a consequence, it was disappointing — if not altogether surprising — to see the show go creatively off the rails, continuing to attract solid ratings but drifting rather listlessly from one crisis to the next. Perhaps inevitably, its spinoff, adding “in Wonderland” to the unwieldy title, is equally handsome, but behind those virtual sets lurk many potential flaws. An appealing Alice certainly helps matters, but past performance reduces the likelihood of a fairy-tale ending.
In a way, the darkened take on fairy tales employed here almost immediately takes “OUATIW” (as ABC not so helpfully abbreviates it) into treacherous waters, closer to the movie “Sucker Punch” than anyone should willingly venture.
Alice (Sophie Lowe) returned from her adventures in Wonderland as a lass spouting what sounded like nonsense, and her frequent trips back have done nothing to quell assumptions the poor girl must be mad. Now a young woman, she’s being held in a mental institution when the show begins, as doctors interrogate her and seek authorization to perform a “procedure” to deaden her pain.
That pain stems from the loss of her true love (ah, there’s that again), a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), who she met in Wonderland and has every reason to believe is dead. Given hope he might be alive, she journeys back with the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha), braving the wrath of the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) and, in another one of those bits of fairy-tale-cross-collateralization, the wizard Jafar (“Lost’s” Naveen Andrews). Her companions also include the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), who in addition to being late seems to have borrowed his glasses from Elton John.
Even with incomplete visual effects in the screener, there are certainly some arresting designs (including the Queen’s chess-piece-encrusted castle) in the premiere written by Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Zack Estrin and Jane Espenson. Yet this latest version of an extended quest to reunite young lovers faces all the usual hurdles about how to keep that interesting while deferring the arrival of “Happily ever after” for five or six seasons.
Given ABC’s struggles Thursday at 8 (its own version of a development rabbit hole), one can see the allure of a project with built-in name recognition and female appeal to flow into “Grey’s Anatomy” and the surging “Scandal.” Hell, there’s even already a tie-in ride at Disneyland.
That said, unless Alice and her rabbit pal have more tricks up their sleeve than Snow White and the gang could muster, ABC’s visit to Wonderland might once again leave the network less in need of a looking glass than a rear-view mirror.