I for one – and possibly the only one – will miss Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. ABC’s Once Upon a Time spin-off, which bowed out earlier this month after just 13 episodes, never hooked as large an audience as its parent, but for me it’s a much more satisfying guilty pleasure. This crazy, psychedelic action-romance take on the adventures of Alice (Sophie Lowe) in Wonderland intrigued me from the start, and by the end I really rather adored it.
Three seasons into Once Upon a Time, watching it sometimes feels more like an obligation than a pleasure, even a guilty one. I want to see how things turn out for the denizens of Storybrooke, but lately it feels like this show is running out of ideas, despite not running out of fairy-tale lands owned by Disney (ABC’s parent company). I’m less engaged with the story and the characters, many of whom I never liked all that much in the first place. On the other hand, I always looked forward to my Thursday-night journey to Wonderland – a world where good and evil clash, fantasy and reality collide, Alice’s beau is a genie Cyrus (Peter Gadiot) and a fez-wearing, hookah-smoking CGI Caterpillar has Iggy Pop’s voice.
If I had three wishes from one of Cyrus’s genie buddies, maybe I would wish for Once to be canceled and Wonderland to stay. Yeah, but everyone knows those things never turn out the way you want. So instead I’ll just give you seven reasons that Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is a better show.
7. It Has Cooler Costumes.
As in Once Upon a Time, the action in Wonderland is split between the “real world” and the fantasy world. Except here the supposedly real world is a version of Victorian England, where buttons adorn everything, top hats rule, and men in suits are the norm. In Storybrooke, mostly everybody just wears normal 21st-century clothing. Yawn.
It’s more of a personal-taste issue, but I grow tired of seeing so many ladies in the fantasy worlds of OuaT running around in froufy revealing gowns, tiaras, long satin gloves, ornate necklaces and other fluffy accouterment. OK, minor character Mulan (Jamie Chung) gets to wear armor, and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) sports a pretty utilitarian huntress outfit during her time as an outlaw. The design of the women’s fancy royal garb does have a modern flavor, with details like long cutaway jackets over tight leggings allowing for more mobility, but it’s still feels strangely one-note. At least the dudes wear stuff they can actually move around in, even if some of those high pointy collars could put a guy’s eye out.
By contrast, Cyrus and the Knave of Hearts/Will Scarlet (Michael Socha) wear pretty simple outfits of basic shirts under leather vests or jackets. Evil Jafar (Naveen Andrews) has the craziest robes ever, and some look heavier than the most elaborate lady-gowns. The clothing of the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) is no exception to the cleavage-baring opulent-outfit rule, and Alice herself sports ruffly stuff from time to time. But mostly she wears stuff that is less renfair and more stylish swashbuckler, including a purple waistcoat paired with tall gray boots, and the cool cropped leather jacket and short vest she has on in the final episodes (pictured). The fact that she acquires her things as needed from the never-seen Clothes Horse makes it even more fun.
6. It Has Fun Animated Guest Stars
OuaT doesn’t have much need for computer-animated characters, but it wouldn’t be Wonderland without strange talking creatures. Some viewers found the execution of the aforementioned Caterpillar, the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat a bit dodgy, but as a TV viewer who cut my teeth on early Doctor Who and original Star Trek, I’m not too fussed about iffy special effects.
Moreover, what’s not to love about an ever-nervous White Rabbit with hyperactive ears voiced by John Lithgow … whose laid-back Mrs. Rabbit is Whoopi Goldberg? Iggy Pop always sounds a bit underwater when he plays the Caterpillar, somewhat muting the menace he’s supposed to be. But genre veteran and voiceover icon Keith David makes a truly creepy Cheshire Cat, one you wouldn’t want to meet on the ground, let alone up in a tree where Alice nearly gets eaten.
5. It Has Fewer Characters … and Fewer Annoying Ones.
Wonderland has a smaller core cast, which keeps the story more manageable and is kind of a relief after having to keep up with the dozens of people who parade in and out of its parent show. (I already have too much brain bandwidth dedicated to remembering all the Game of Thrones characters.) Even better, most of the Wonderland people are likable. There’s Alice, who’s so good she sometimes actually glows but is never insufferably sanctimonious about it, unlike some characters on OuaT (more on that in a minute). Probably my fave is the Knave of Hearts/Will Scarlet (Michael Socha, pictured), a good-hearted thief who’s not the sharpest arrow in the quiver and acts like he can’t be bothered, but always ends up helping anyway. (There’s a chance that Socha will continue on in Once Upon a Time, assuming the show is renewed for a fourth season, which would be cool.) And Cyrus makes for a more down-to-earth prince-charming stand-in.
The evil Jafar is a seriously, at times laughably, over-the-top Big Bad, but at least Naveen Andrews is entertaining in his commitment to the madness. And yeah, the Red Queen is a bubble-lipped bitch whom I really wanted to slap (although I came to like her eventually), but nobody on Wonderland – and I mean nobody, not even Alice’s nasty stepmother – comes close to getting under my skin as much as Snow White and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) on OuaT. They bug me sooo much. They’re like the popular high school couple who is nice enough but sort of vacant, people you run out of things to say to after about 15 seconds of conversation. They’re boring and self-righteous, forever trying to make up for lost time with grown-up daughter Emma (Jennifer Morrison) by giving her advice in the most irritating possible ways. (Alice has a tendency to make speeches too, but you always feel like she’s trying to convince you, not lecture you. Take a note, Snow White.)
And don’t get me started on Emma’s annoying son, Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who spent two seasons being wiser than most of the adults, but this season has had no memory of Storybrooke’s true nature, requiring everyone else on the show has to protect him from the truth. It takes a village, indeed.
4. It Has Delightfully Bizarre Visuals.
Most of the fantasy “worlds” from Once Upon a Time look pretty normal. Sure, if you stumbled into the World Without Color you’d realize you were elsewhere, but if you were dropped into Neverland or the Enchanted Forest, you might not know you were in a magical place until you happened upon an ornate carriage carrying a cranky Evil Queen (at which point, run away!). But in Wonderland, you always know you’re somewhere else – a place of checkerboard landscapes, giant mushrooms, fantastic plants, dimensionally transcendental trees and the dangerous Boiling Sea.
Some of the Technicolor-vomit backgrounds echo the look of the 1951 Disney animated film, but Wonderland also has a weird glam-rock thing happening – reflected most obviously in the Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie faces of the Tweedles.
That said, not every visual choice inspires endless wonder. The Jabberwocky is supposed to be absolutely terrifying, the most horrible creature ever let loose in Wonderland. Actress Peta Sergeant does her best to menace, but it’s pretty tough to take her seriously in her horrible blonde wig. I usually just end up staring in horrified fascination at those hacked-off bangs, wondering who decided this was a good look for a scary beast, and totally losing track of the action. Talk about a mojo-killer.
3. It Has a More “Realistic” Storybook Romance.
One of the main themes of Wonderland, as with its parent show, is the power of true love. The unwavering devotion between Alice and Cyrus is certainly one of the show’s charms. I’m usually a black-hearted old cynic, but the sparks in their eyes when they gaze at each other and the way the actors convey that uncontained joy of young love always melts at least the top layers of carbon.
Like Snow and Charming, these two often say they will “always find each other” – and they do. But something about their romance feels a little more “real” than the kinds of eternal devotion shown on OuaT. One of my favorite relationships on the parent show, between sweet young Belle and gnarled old Rumple, is nevertheless completely preposterous and a little bit icky. Though Snow and Charming are a better fit, there are times when they decide to hide things from each other – like when Charming is fatally poisoned but at first keeps it from Snow (yeah, he got better) – that feel weird, considering all they’ve been through and how many times they’ve already learned that honesty is the best policy.
Not that Alice and Cyrus are always 100 percent honest with each other, but they come clean a lot sooner and get over it with less drama. It’s the kind of ideal that feels more obtainable, something we can all hope for from our true love: Knowing we’re not perfect, accepting flaws, moving on.
2. It Has a More Kickass Heroine.
OuaT has its share of swordplay and fisticuffs, but, especially where the female characters are concerned, its most epic smackdowns tend to be magical ones. Not that I don’t love a magical duel, but there’s something more satisfying about watching characters trade physical blows. Snow White was a badass with a bow and arrow in the Enchanted Forest, but now she’s pregnant in Storybrooke, and her pals won’t even let her help track the Wicked Witch (Rebecca Mader). Emma has had her fierce moments, and of course Mulan is a serious warrior (though she’s not seen that often). But no lady on the parent show is as consistently kickass as Alice, who strides about Wonderland with a fearsome sword on her back and never hesitates to use it – or to wade into a fight with arms and legs flailing. Not to mention, as pictured, beating down the attendants to escape from the creepy Victorian asylum her father commits her to.
By the time of the big final showdown with Jafar, she’s knocking down an army of minions all by herself – and without any magical powers, just the strength of her belief in love to keep her going. Yeah, I guess that’s corny, but beyond her physical fierceness is her mental toughness: When Jafar threatens to change the past so that Alice and Cyrus never meet, Alice doesn’t cave in and give Jafar the info he wants or beg to keep her true love. Instead she bravely delivers the emotional smackdown, taunting that Jafar may have changed the laws of magic to make the Red Queen love him, but that love is still only an illusion. And what she and Cyrus have is real. So there.
1. It Ends.
Like I said up top, Once Upon a Time is beginning to feel like it’s meandering without much purpose, other than to continue to remind us that Disney has its fingers on just about every big fantasy property out there. (I keep wondering when we’re going to get a look at Star Wars World…you know it could happen!) Season 3 has brought us “the Curse” 2.0, and while the show is clever enough to build a mystery around that, bring in some new players and put some old ones in dire circumstances, it all feels like a bit of a retread.
By contrast, though I am sad to see Wonderland go, one of the best things about it is that the series finale, “And They Lived…,” wrapped things up nicely, with Jafar getting his just deserts and an appropriately storybook wedding for Alice and Cyrus, with all their friends from Wonderland and London bearing delighted witness. By the end of the episode, it’s hard to imagine where they would have gone next…and the realization dawns that we few fans are lucky indeed.
As co-creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz explained at the show’s panel during the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour last year, they planned to tell a story with “a beginning, middle and end” all along – and they did. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland had a perfect ending, and that’s a rare gift indeed.
More from Natalie Nichols:
8 Reasons “The Day of the Doctor” Made Me (Almost) Completely Forgive Steven Moffat
Ten Reasons Peter Capaldi Is – and Isn’t – a Good Choice for Doctor Who
11 Cult TV Shows Besides Veronica Mars That Deserve Kickstarter-Funded Movies