Alice

Alice debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on SyFy.

If there's one thing you can count on SyFy for, it's cheesy made-for-TV movies and miniseries events that try to hide that cheese under several layers of affected darkness. For every fairly enjoyable SyFy miniseries, like The Lost Room, there's one that does something as ungainly as combining The Wizard of Oz with the look and feel of Blade Runner, as the network did in Tin Man. Now, creating quirky, self-consciously "adult" spins on beloved children's novels isn't exactly a new thing, considering such a thing has largely made up the second act of video game designer American McGee (and, indeed, extends well back into the history of post-modernist fantasy in general). Still, if you're going to do a spin on Alice in Wonderland that's Not For Kids, it might be better to come up with something that's not just blatantly trying to look like a drug trip at every turn. That's the easy way out.

Alice is the semi-official follow-up to Tin Man, which was a surprise ratings success for SyFy when it aired a couple of years ago. As such, it tries to turn the Wonderland mythos into a weird amalgam of stuff that tries really hard to be edgy, stuff that stays pretty faithful to the original tales and stuff the miniseries has invented for its own purposes. Here, virtually all of Wonderland's strange creatures are human beings involved in the Wonderland underworld in one way or another, Alice is a black belt with father issues, and the White Rabbit is a strange organization that disappears people from our world. If any of that sounds cool or potentially interesting, the miniseries sets it all up in the clumsiest way possible, sadly.

The best thing about Alice is its cast, which is sterling. Kathy Bates sinks her teeth into yet another villainess role as the Red Queen, turning Wonderland into her own personal dictatorship (and referring to herself as the greatest female in all of literature at one point, in a weird bit of self-referentiality that the miniseries would have done well to follow further). Harry Dean Stanton plays the Caterpillar as, well, as Harry Dean Stanton, a frazzled old man who seems to be perpetually high on something and spouts philosophical wisdom seemingly at random. While the male leads are largely generic, the miniseries has found a compelling female lead in Caterina Scorsone, who makes the most of every bizarre twist the storyline throws at her and handles the inevitable transition from shiftless twentysomething to chosen one about as well as it could be handled. Also of note is Matt Frewer, turning up as an ancient, aged knight who joins Alice's quest. Frewer turns the guy into a weird hybrid of goofy old man caricature and guy who longs for his lost kingdom.

But the cast isn't enough to save what ends up being about as generic a take on an adult Wonderland as possible. Literally anything you could imagine for a "dark" spin on Wonderland is here, from big airship battles to swirling, psychedelic backgrounds to trappings that might be more appropriate in a mental hospital. Like the Oz of Tin Man, Alice struggles with the fact that lots of people have put darker spins on Wonderland, and it ends up cribbing from way too many of them. The crime stuff is occasionally interesting, but it gets lost in a miasma of story that never quite coheres. The White Rabbit has a reason for spiriting away so many people from our world (including some in Alice's own life), but it ends up being simultaneously too convoluted and too easily predictable.

Similarly, the intrigue in the court of the Red Queen feels like generic fantasy political stuff. Again, there are intended surprises here with how Alice's real life ties in to the life of Wonderland, but everything ends up being far too easy to predict. And while everything in the storyline builds to a giant, epic battle as one might expect, nothing in that battle feels terribly at stake. The sides battling over the soul of Wonderland feel too similar, both tied up in the sort of self-conscious darkness that keeps them from being terribly well-defined in opposition to each other. Similarly, Wonderland itself never feels like a real place worthy of being saved and, instead, feels like a collection of quirks tossed together at random into a fantasy kingdom that seems to consist entirely of a forest, a  castle, a few shady rooms and a casino.

Yes, indeed, a casino. The mini's major contribution to the Alice in Wonderland mythos is to take the mentions of cards as people and turn it into an excuse to create a giant gaming palace that drives much of the Wonderland economy (such as it were). It's a potentially interesting idea that ends up being executed in the least interesting method possible. Most of the scenes in the casino drag on and on, as though there wasn't a lot of thought put into the idea beyond, "Wouldn't it be cool if the major landmark in Wonderland was a casino?" In short, that's what takes down a lot of the ideas in Alice. They're simply there because someone thought they would be cool or an "edgy" reimagining of the central story, just like the series keeps tossing names from the Lewis Carroll story onto criminals in the hopes that they'll seem more menacing and/or true to the source material that way.

In the end, despite the best efforts of the cast, Alice feels like something where events happen just because they're supposed to, as though all involved pared this down from an eight-hour miniseries that was far less interesting but made a lot more sense. While the miniseries isn't the worst thing ever to be broadcast or anything like that, it can't even manage the step up to enjoyably dumb that Tin Man managed to pull off from time to time. There's stuff here that feels like it could have led to something enjoyable, but by and large, the miniseries hasn't come up with a believable world or characters compelling enough to make visiting that world a good time. Maybe this will appeal to the people who made Tin Man a hit, but hopefully, it won't, lest SyFy sic on us a Neverland where Peter Pan is the result of a failed experiment designed to cross birds with men, Captain Hook is a used car salesman and Wendy is a bored insurance salesman with strange dreams of crocodiles.


Stray observations:

  • Screeners sans visual effects are pretty common in the world of TV criticking, but the Alice screener had so many missing effects that it's probably worth pointing out that some of this will play better when the viewer can see something other than a blank card describing what you should be seeing.
  • Also turning up in the miniseries is Colm Meaney, who does a fine job with what he's handed, for the most part.
  • On the other hand, this whole thing might be worth watching just to see how the miniseries portrays the March Hare, which ends up being ... really strange. Similarly, the Dormouse is on the right side of bizarre. More of these weird touches might have made the whole thing a more enjoyable piece to watch.
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