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TV Review: SyFy's "Alice" update

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Three stars
8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on SyFy

SyFy's modern-day sequel to "Alice in Wonderland" makes it clear from the start that we are dealing with a very different creature than Disney's hair-bowed version. The first three things we learn about Alice are:

*She is an adult brunette.

*She is a kick-ass martial arts instructor.

*She has some commitment issues.

She's also never been to Wonderland. Thoroughly modern Alice has been busy dating a rather chiseled looking prince of a guy with an English accent (Philip Winchester), but when he tries to give her a ring that's been in his family for a long time - the movie is sponsored by Kay Jewelers! - she sends him away.

But the tricky guy has slipped the ring in her pocket. Alice runs after him to return it, and sees him abducted into a white van. Long story short - she runs right through the looking glass.

Alice adjusts admirably quickly to being in a parallel universe, and recruits a street-smart local named Hatter to help save her boyfriend. Hatter is played by the enjoyable Andrew Lee Potts, who reminded me of a grownup Jack Wild.

The idea behind the update is that while our world was changing over the last 150 years, so was Wonderland. The Queen of Hearts (a delicious Kathy Bates) is still seething about the last time someone named Alice visited, but has since devised a way to keep her subjects content. Her "suits" kidnap people they call "oysters" from our world, trap them in a purgatory tricked out as a casino, and drain emotions out through their feet. Then the good people of Wonderland can get high off "Bliss," "Lust," "Innocence," etc.

And it would explain an awful lot of disappearances.

The reinventions from Lewis Carroll's books are fresh but not cutesy; flamingos turn up as motorized air vehicles - sort of sky Vespas. I was never too versed in the "Alice" mythology, as the story seemed mean-spirited and freaky to me. But devotees can expect reimaginings of Dinah the cat, the March Hare, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Borgroves.

Wonderland has a groovy '60s vibe, complete with white shag carpeting and swirly hypnotic backgrounds. Because there's an anything-goes kind of feeling to the proceedings, the characters sometimes seem to be in their own movies. The Duchess (Charlotte Sullivan) seems to have wandered in from the set of "Barbarella," while Matt Frewer plays the White Knight as though he were a member of the Monty Python troupe. Maybe he should be.

The mini-series is charming, but not perfect. The pacing dragged in some parts, and although this Alice is unmistakably empowered, she asked a lot fewer questions than I would. Like: Does the President know about Wonderland? And are there any bathrooms?

There are any number of themes to explore. I liked Wonderland's views on money ("Pieces of paper? Pointless"), and the script takes shots at the stock market, the higher stakes for instant gratification, and the dangers of gambling. I suspect you could make a case for a Nazi allegory - experimenting on prisoners, the Resistance movement - but I was too distracted by the air flamingos to work it all out.

Caterina Scorsone plays Alice with a nice balance of determination, skepticism, and open-mindedness. There's some added romance to advance the proceedings, but Alice never flirts or blushes. These adventures don't just happen to Alice; it's obvious it's just a matter of time before she conquers Wonderland.

And she'll definitely whet your appetite for Tim Burton's upcoming "Alice" adaption, due March 5. From the previews, it looks like that one will be traditionally mean-spirited, with an emphasis on the freaky.

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I run a t-shirt shop,, that creates designs inspired by great books. We just came out with an "Alice in Wonderland" t-shirt last week (actually "Through the Looking Glass"). When we decided to make the shirt, we had no idea all these Alices were about to pop out...

Here's the quote from the book which explains the shirt, "One thing was certain, that the WHITE kitten had had nothing to do with it:—it was the black kitten's fault entirely."

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Paige Wiser

Paige Wiser is the TV columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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