Spin-offs are always a tough sell for audiences, no matter what branch of media they come from. The problem is they will always be compared to their original series, and so they need to perform twice as well just to get half the recognition, regardless of how successful they might be otherwise. This is the challenge facing ABC’s new drama, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, a would-be sister series to Once Upon a Time. The fledgling fantasy has received some positive early reviews and is considered one of the more successful fall editions. However, unlike other new series, Wonderland is still fighting to emerge from its sibling’s shadow. 

Our story opens in a dismal Victorian asylum, where a now-adult Alice (Sophie Lowe) has been imprisoned. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Alice had visited Wonderland on a number of occasions, where she met and fell in love with a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot). However, their budding romance was cut short by tragedy, and Alice returned to her world overcome with despair. all this changes with the appearance of the sardonic Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the white rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), who inform Alice that there may still be hope for her genie. In actuality, Cyrus is not dead but imprisoned by some of Disney’s more notorious villains, Jafar (played by Lost alum Naveen Andrews) and the Red Queen (Emma Rigby).

As far as protagonists go, Lowe and Socha make an amiable pair. Alice is a wide-eyed optimist with a taste for adventure, while the Knave is more practical and self-serving. The chemistry between them is rich, but thankfully platonic, as the series bills much on the love between Cyrus and Alice. As pleasant as these two are, Wonderland’s real scene stealers are the dubious duo of Andrews and Rigby, who play villains Jafar and the Red Queen respectively. Watching these two chew the scenery is one of the shows best features, and one can only hope to see more of them as the story progresses.

With such a strong cast featured in a creative setting, it’s hard to believe Wonderland is facing any major hurdles, but ironically what makes the show so unique is also what gives it the most problems. Unlike the original Once, Wonderland does not take place in the real world, which means many scenes are marred by poorly rendered CGI. Furthermore, while everyone knows the stories of Cinderella or Snow White, audiences are less familiar with Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. As a result, the new series has less content to work with and an audience that doesn’t even recognize the significance of things they can use. What we get are viewers who are just learning that the Red Queen and Queen of Hearts are different characters in a story that is now greatly out-pacing them.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, Wonderland suffers from constant comparisons to the original. Emma Rigby owns her performance as the Red Queen, but she is no Regina any more than Andrews is Rumpelstiltskin. In a similar vein, the young love of Alice and Cyrus seems almost paltry when compared to the legendary romance of Snow White and Prince Charming. On its own, Wonderland could have succeeded without breaking a sweat. With the Once name attached, it has some big shoes to fill.                

For the whimsical and well-performed Wonderland, here’s hoping everything works out in the end.

*This Review First Published 10/25/2013

**Watch Once Upon a Time in Wonderland Thursdays on ABC.