Once Upon A Time In Wonderland: "Trust Me" 
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Once Upon A Time In Wonderland: "Trust Me" 

I don’t remember Wonderland having fairies. I especially don’t remember Wonderland having any fairies called “Silvermist” who shacked up with Knaves, got super pissed when things went south, and subsequently tried to murder their former lovers by dropping them into large bodies of water. Actually, that last bit does sound vaguely Wonderland-ish, but still: This isn’t my Wonderland, or my father’s, and it certainly isn’t Lewis Carroll’s. It’s not necessary, or even really possible, for a show like this to be an accurate adaptation, but so far, most everything we’ve seen has been the in-name-only version. Some of the characters match up (Alice and the White Rabbit have the right feel to them), but for the most part, this is Wonderland-in-name-only, a lot of generic fantasy tropes grafted on to familiar phrases. The TumTum Tree, whose sole purpose in the original work was as a nonsense phrase in the epic gibberish of “Jabberwocky,” here takes on significance as a place Alice uses to fool Jafar. The Mock Turtle, a melancholy, human sized creature in the story, is now a giant, silent animal whose primary purpose is a mode of transportation. And, yes, there are fairies. Chirpy, bland fairies with no joke to them at all. (Well, apart from the ferry/fairy pun.)

Accepting this as given—that this is the world the show inhabits, and these are the terms with which it chooses to tell its story—is a large part of getting any pleasure out of “Trust Me.” This version of Wonderland is really more of a backdrop, which makes sense; the original wasn’t a place for grand quests, and it almost certainly wasn’t a place for romance. So, fine, let’s treat this as a riff instead of a translation, and, after a deep breath, ignore all the possibilities doing so will leave on the table. That leaves us with one more major hurdle to get past: the dodgy special effects. Not every shot is a horrible failure (the forest looked quite lovely in this episode), but the ones that are bad are really quite very bad; the flashback in the hedge maze with Alice and Cyrus seemed to be missing a half a dozen computers, and even the shots of the Red Queen’s throne room (which, so far at least, could’ve easily been a set) are flat and unconvincing. Good CGI is not cheap, and this is very clearly a show with a budget (book Wonderland wasn’t a bustling metropolis, but, aside from the Ren faire crowd Jafar murders in the Queen’s throne room, the TV version appears to have maybe four people in it), but this is still immensely distracting. It’s hard not to feel bad for the actors, most of whom are doing quite credible work, and nothing kicks you out of a show’s world faster than feeling bad for its cast.

So those are two pretty big caveats, and both depend on a simple idea: If you’re going to watch this, you really have to want to get some fun out it. But if you’re willing to make those jumps—well, it’s still not a classic, but “Trust Me” is in some ways stronger than the pilot, building on relationships in a way that makes the stakes of the series more indelible, and moving forward without an egregious degree of stalling. The big plus this week are the flashbacks to Alice and Cyrus’ developing relationship. Last week, Cyrus came across as a little too much (if you’ll excuse the pun) wish-fulfillment, a character solely defined by how he made another character feel. While he hasn’t taken a turn for the Shakespearean, he does come across as more full-bodied in the new episode, and thus, more interesting. The cold open briefly explains how the genie wound up in Wonderland in a way that suggests Cyrus has been running from Jafar for years, a suggestion that is confirmed by Cyrus’s wariness throughout the flashbacks. His connection with Alice, then, makes more sense, not just as one lonely person finding her fantasy, but as two hunted and lost individuals learning to trust one another.

It’s still very basic stuff, but it plays as sweet rather than cloying, which is key. The romance is the motivating engine that drives the rest of the plot, and it’s important that the engine has some oomph behind it. Scenes with Alice and Cyrus chatting in a cafe, or Cyrus teaching her swordplay in the woods, provide the necessary background to make it more than just dialogue. And Alice and the Knave’s friendship develops as well. “Love,” and the veracity thereof, is apparently a major theme for the show, as most of the Knave and Alice’s conversations revolve around him being a cynic, and her being determined not to be a cynic. It’s all very predictable, right up to the Knave’s mysterious “Anastasia,” a woman (?) who broke his heart or betrayed him or was betrayed by him at some point—the details don’t matter, but like an atheist in a Hollywood film, if the Knave doesn’t believe in love, it has to be a response to some kind of heartbreak. Which is all nonsense, but it’s pleasant, entertaining nonsense for the most part, and if you’re in the right groove, it’s endearing to watch.

Even that has its limits, though. The special effects are lousy, and the use of the “Wonderland” name seem more and more like a gimmick, but in terms of the story itself, the Red Queen continues to be a bit of a bore. Jafar gets more interesting this week, and Naveen Andrews’ gentle-but-menacing style works a lot better when he’s whispering threats rather than cackling maleficently. The scenes between the villains too often feel like check-ins to remind us that these characters exist, and making it easier to remember that even with the 13 episode structure, there’s bound to be some stalling. So far, that stall hasn’t seeped into the heroes’ scenes yet—sure, the whole confrontation with Silvermist (sigh) and the ride on the Mock Turtle wasn’t exactly necessary, and Alice’s plan to lie to everyone about the location of the bottle in order to, um, something, only really makes sense if she’d actually been able to determine who’d betrayed her. (As it is, it just seems like she mostly did it to mildly inconvenience her enemy. I guess letting the Knave see Jafar was kind of useful somehow?) But Alice’s determination remains a key ingredient in the show’s admittedly narrow appeal. Not even a silly “Oh, he’s given up on me!” distraction can diminish that for long. It’s not good enough to recommend, but as silly TV fantasy love stories go, well, why the hell not?

Stray observations:

  • The cold open starts with “Many years ago in Agrabah.” So how long was Cyrus waiting under that hedge before Alice showed up?
  • Jafar wants the genie’s bottle to change the laws of magic, so he can make the impossible possible. I’m silly. I thought that WAS THE WHOLE POINT OF HAVING MAGIC.
  • Cyrus plays chess with his fellow prisoner who is, so far as I can tell, not a genie. Chess, get it? Get it? (Actually, I wish the show would work more of this stuff in; one of the glorious bits about Through The Looking Glass is that Alice’s journey follows the path of an actual chess game.)
  • So the White Rabbit just happens to catch Alice and Cyrus’s super secret bottle-burying ceremony. Great stealth, you two.
  • So, are there fairies in Wonderland? And do you attract them by clapping? It’s possible I’ve forgotten.

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