‘Alice,’ Sunday and Monday on Syfy

Caterina Scorsone is shown during a scene from "Alice", a Syfy original miniseries.

TV characters frequently slip through some version of the
looking glass and find themselves in strange places — a surreal island on Lost, an alternate universe on Fringe, an odd totalitarian landscape in AMC’s recent
remake of
The Prisoner. So it’s
only natural that every now and then, TV tackles the stories that gave us the
“through the looking glass” phrase in the first place, Lewis
Carroll’s tales about
Alice in Wonderland.

The latest attempt, Syfy’s Alice, is yet another one of those “reimaginings”
of which the cable channel is so particularly fond. It even comes from
writer-director Nick Willing, who gave us “Tin Man,” a “Wizard
of Oz” reimagining, a couple of years ago.

Like “Tin Man,” Alice takes a character who was
originally still in childhood and turns her into a young, independent woman
(Caterina Scorsone) who’s on a very different journey than the original writer
imagined. And, like “Tin Man,” it’s an overlong misfire.

Scorsone’s Alice is an urban karate instructor — which comes
in handy during the miniseries’ many fight scenes — who’s still close to her
mom. Her father abandoned the family years ago, when Alice was still 10 (to
Willing’s credit, he makes several onscreen references to Carroll’s original
Alice). Shortly after Alice takes the big step of introducing her new guy Jack
(Crusoe‘s Philip Winchester) to mom,
Jack takes the even bigger step of trying to give Alice a ring.

It’s clearly not an engagement ring, but Alice still freaks
out and pushes Jack out the door, saying he’s going too fast, without allowing
him to explain himself. But Jack still manages to slip the ring into her
pocket, and when Alice tries to chase Jack down to return it, she finds him
being attacked and abducted by weird-looking thugs. When she pursues them, she
falls through a mirror, and presto, she’s in Wonderland.

That’s a lot of set-up, but Alice runs through it pretty quickly — much more quickly
than this two-part, four-hour (counting commercials) miniseries gets through
the rest of its story. Willing, who also directed a 1999 TV version of the
story, seems to have a problem with restraint — both of his versions are at
least twice as long as the most famous feature-film versions, a cameo-studded
1933 movie and the 1951 Disney cartoon.

As Willing’s script meanders, the miniseries becomes more a
matter of seeing how well-known actors will interpret Carroll’s famous
characters. Kathy Bates is predictably domineering as the ruthless Queen of
Hearts, Tim Curry barely registers in a brief role as Dodo, and Harry Dean
Stanton is expectedly eccentric as Caterpillar.

They’re all upstaged by Matt Frewer, still best-known for
playing Max Headroom, as the bumbling but big-hearted White Knight, and by
Eugene Lipinski in a particularly creepy variation on Tweedle-dee and
Tweedle-dum that comes in one of the miniseries’ most effective set pieces. (Primeval‘s Andrew Lee Potts — as a not-very-mad Hatter,
Alice’s closest ally — does a very good job of looking good in a hat.)

Alice is a triumph of
style over content (and TV viewers will get to see more style than most
critics, who were sent rough-cut preview discs lacking many final visual
effects). It’s one of those things where you notice the art direction and
costume design (especially the nifty playing-card outfits the Queen’s henchmen
wear) more than you notice the story or the words.

It’ll look great in high-def, but it’s a missed opportunity
on just about every other level. With Willing having tackled the story twice,
it’s evident that it holds some sort of appeal for him, so why let it
degenerate into a B-level action movie in the second part or write a script
that doesn’t even try to pay respect to Carroll’s gift for wordplay?

Visually, Alice does
go through the looking glass, but its script merely goes through the motions.


9 p.m. EST Sunday and Monday


Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.