When I watch fantasy series with super-duper special effects, such as ABC’s new “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” I generally slip into a vigilant meta state. The screen becomes a screen, rather than an invisible gateway, and I constantly scan it to locate the seams between the live action and the green screen. I get distracted imagining how the actors are imagining the intricate backdrops that were applied later on.
The digital cartoon images — that perky White Rabbit, for instance — always seem to be floating ever so slightly, and I fixate on that “slightly,” on the way the rabbit is hopping on a slightly different plane from the people. And then I hear John Lithgow’s voice coming from the rabbit’s mouth, and I picture the towering actor doing and redoing lines while standing at a studio microphone with headphones on.
Even when the effects are beautifully done, I’m still studying them, admiring their perfection, thinking about how they are more perfect than reality, instead of simply succumbing to them.
In short, I’d rather watch a straight-up cartoon, or the low-fi effects on a show such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” So I am not the ideal audience for “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” a slick effects extravaganza whose pilot episode kept me looking instead of enjoying.
The ABC show, which premieres on Thursday night at 8, is a spinoff of sorts of “Once Upon a Time,” the Sunday night series that throws a party for far-flung fairy tale characters from Snow White and Prince Charming to Peter Pan and Robin Hood. Instead of adding Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” characters to that show, the producers — Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, and Zack Estrin — have spun them into a completely separate tale about Alice’s return to Wonderland to find the lost love of her life, the genie Cyrus. They’ve infused the story with a touch of “The Wizard of Oz,” as Alice, wearing a shoe containing magic, joins up with the Knave of Hearts and the White Rabbit on her search.
Alice, played by Sophie Lowe, is a sullen young Victorian woman who has been put in an asylum because she insists her first trip down the rabbit hole was real. Lowe is a great find; once she returns to Wonderland, barely avoiding a lobotomy-like procedure in the institution, she blooms into a kickass heroine without being overly spunky, self-righteous, and Disneyesque. Her love for Cyrus, though, is a little off, simply because Lowe is so real while Peter Gadiot as Cyrus is a far more generic presence. He’s like a human doll. You want her to do better — maybe stumble across a more textured and complex prince at some tea party or another.
There’s a Red Queen, naturally, and, like Lana Parrilla’s Evil Queen on “Once Upon a Time,” she’s among the show’s more memorable characters. Played by Emma Rigby, she looks like a bratty little girl with overfilled-tire lips and a razor-sharp jawline. Her cohort in badness, Jafar, is played by Naveen Andrews from “Lost” with a far less entertaining downbeat bearing. Also underwhelming: The Cheshire Cat, an aggressive and aggressively fake feline that takes the “dig it” out of digital.
I’m glad that “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” like its mother ship and like “Pushing Daisies” from a few years back, is so different from the rest of TV. Where else might you find marshmallow quicksand and dragon flies who breathe fire? It’s all meant to be a paean to the imagination. Too bad the effects pry some of us out of our imaginations and into the tech lab.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew Gilbert.