Once Upon A Time: Once Upon A Time
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Once Upon A Time: Once Upon A Time

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Once Upon A Time

<em>Once Upon A Time </em>

Season 1, Episode 1

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This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Oliver Sava, who’ll review the show week to week, and Erik Adams talk about Once Upon A Time.

Once Upon A Time debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Oliver: “What do you think stories are for? These stories, classics, there’s a reason we all know them. They’re a way for us to deal with our world, a world that doesn’t always make sense.” Elementary school teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin) says this to explain why she gave a student a book of fairy tales to remedy his loneliness at home, but it’s also a solid explanation for the multitude of revisionist/post-ever-after fairy tale projects developing in Hollywood right now. President Obama turned out to be less of the Prince Charming voters hoped for in 2008, failing to slay the dragon of the Bush years and awaken the country from economic slumber. Political factions are gearing up for war with the upcoming presidential campaign, as the civilian masses are becoming increasingly restless with the disparity between America’s wealthy and the majority that is struggling on a daily basis. What better time to turn to turn to familiar stories emphasizing hope and love triumphing over the forces of darkness?

Last year, Twilight­-inspired adaptations of “Little Red Riding Hood” (Red Riding Hood) and “Beauty and the Beast” (Beastly) opened in cinemas, and two versions of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” will be arriving in 2012. Two serialized television dramas with ties to classic fairy tales are debuting this season, and while Grimm and Once Upon A Time both have gimmicky concepts, the latter series shows more promise than the former. Grimm’s crime procedural structure is a recipe for disaster, but OUAT shows potential for stories that explore the ways fairy tales reflect real world struggles. It also has access to Disney properties, a sizable budget, big name actors, and that signature ABC polish.  

From Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, executive producers and writers on Lost, OUAT is largely indebted to the duo’s previous work with the passengers of Flight 815, along with the popular Vertigo comic book series Fables. Horowitz and Kitsis may claim to be unfamiliar with Bill Willingham’s series about fairy tale characters living in a New York City neighborhood called Fabletown, but ABC wasn’t, having picked up Fables for development into an hour-long drama back in 2008. Tapping Six Degrees showrunners Stu Zicherman and Raven Metzner for the adaptation of Fables was a bad sign, and the series never got past early development stages. There are distinct changes between OUAT and Fables, but the core concept is similar enough that it’s hard not to suspect something fishy went on behind-the-scenes.

Fables has its characters forced out of their European homelands by a mysterious militaristic Adversary, displaced in America but still retaining the memories of their previous life. As the Adversary begins to threaten their life across the Atlantic, the Fabletown residents prepare to go back to war, fighting to reclaim the land that was stolen from them. Snow White’s (also Goodwin) stepmother, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), is the enemy of OUAT, placing a curse on the fairy tale guests of Snow White and Prince Charming’s (Josh Dallas) wedding: soon they will lose everything, and in their suffering she will have victory. It’s more of a vague threat than a curse, really.

It takes the Queen about nine months to get her spell ready, which erases everyone’s memories and traps them in Storybrooke, Maine, a quaint little New England town that also happens to be frozen in time. The Evil Queen gives Snow White just enough time to have a baby, a daughter that is sent to the real world through a magic wardrobe carved by Geppetto. She is saved from the curse but raised in foster care, so her life still sucks.

I say “the real world,” but it’s not clear if the fairy tale flashbacks take place in the same universe as the modern day scenes, or if they occur in a parallel universe like the flash-sideways of Lost’s final season. Are the characters trying to get back to the life they used to have, or are they trying to achieve the same happy ending from their old lives in the new world they find themselves in? The Queen’s curse is the fairy tale equivalent of a plane crash and Storybrooke is the Island, but where does the fantasy world of castles and fairies exist in relation to that? Is it still out there, uninhabited? This series is grounded in magic instead of science, so at least the writers have more wiggle room to figure it all out. They just have to learn from Lost’s example and make sure questions don’t linger for too long.

The baby grows up into bail bondsman person Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a friendless orphan who celebrates her 28th birthday in an empty apartment with a cupcake and a single candle. She’s “kind of a loner,” although it’s hard to believe that Morrison would have much trouble making friends. In the flashbacks, the imprisoned Rumpelstiltsken (Robert Carlyle) prophecies that Snow White’s daughter will grow up to be the savior of Storybrooke, arriving on her 28th year to go to battle with the town’s Mayor, Regina, the Evil Queen. After making a birthday wish (on a star candle, no less) to not be alone on her birthday, Emma gets a knock on her door. Henry (Jared Gilmore) waits outside, the son of Regina, who adopted the boy from Emma ten years again. That sure is convenient.

Henry is one of those obnoxious child characters whose innocent worldview gives him infinite insight into adult problems, and while he’s not too grating in the pilot, he’s insufferable in the third episode. Gilmore isn’t a very subtle performer, and his enthusiasm works against the isolated, sad image of Henry that the script is trying to convey. It’s too much of a coincidence to have the Evil Queen adopt Emma’s child, and if she did it on purpose, the writers are going to have to come up with something really good to justify her actions.

Henry tells Emma that she needs to come with him and save Storybrooke, and Emma brings him back to Regina, who decorates her house with bowls full of apples and offers Emma a glass of cider. As Emma drives out of town, she sees a wolf in the road and swerves out of control, waking up in the Storybrooke prison where she learns that Henry is missing. Teaming up with Regina and Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan), Emma uses her investigative skills to learn that Henry used his teacher’s credit card when he went to find her, and Henry’s two moms go to his school to question Mary Margaret. Mary is actually Emma’s mother, and the two share multiple “don’t I know you from somewhere?” looks before bonding over how much of a bitch Henry’s mom is.

Emma finds Henry in his “castle,” a wooden fort on the beach, where they have a heart-to-heart that convinces her to believe her son’s crazy ramblings about how everyone is actually a character in his book. She checks in to Granny’s Bed and Breakfast, where she meets a kind old woman and her rebellious granddaughter with a red scarf, and the mischievous-looking Mr. Gold, who is apparently the real power in town. As Emma makes the first move in the upcoming war, Regina stares in a mirror on the wall as she anxiously clutches Henry’s book. Its title? Once Upon A Time.

The main hurdle for OUAT will be the flashbacks, and the fairy tale sequences in the pilot go into laughably campy territory. Parrilla chews up the scenery like a poison apple as the Evil Queen, and while it works for the past, it’s too over-the-top for the modern day scenes. It can’t be easy to sell the line, “I will destroy you if it’s the last thing I do,” especially when you’re wearing a business suit instead of a Goth drag queen’s ensemble. The pilot has great production values in terms of sets and costumes (although the wig department got screwed with their budget), but while the flashbacks look impressive, not every episode has this kind of budget. Mark Mylod’s direction maintains a similar visual style as Lost for the pilot, but it’s going to be a challenge to make sure the fairy tale scenes don’t start to look like a syndicated fantasy series.  

There’s isn’t very much understated on this show; Mary Margaret teaches class with a bird perched on her finger, Rumpelstiltsken’s Storybrooke identity is Mr. Gold, and oh yeah, Storybrooke. Just because one of the characters comments on how ridiculous the name is doesn’t suddenly make it clever. Horowitz and Kitsis need to get away from the referential winks and begin delving into the relationships between these characters and the stories that define them. When Prince Charming is wounded saving his daughter, Snow White holds his unconscious body and kisses him, hoping to wake him, but there is no magic in her kiss. It’s a smart inversion of Snow White’s story, and the kind of clever storytelling the series can use more of.

Stray observations:

  • The PowerPoint prologue at the start of the episode is completely unnecessary, outlining the premise of the series because apparently the writers don’t think the audience will figure it out after watching the pilot.
  • Jiminy Cricket is been transformed into Henry’s therapist, Dr. Archie Hopper, who warns him about embracing his dark side. Gilmore isn’t creepy enough for them to go the Walt route with his character, but anything would be more interesting than his current role as a walking deus ex machina.
  • So the Sheriff is definitely the Big Bad Wolf, right? If true (and it totally is), it's the most explicit connection to Fables.
  • Emma’s response to being offered apple cider: “Got anything stronger?”
  • It’s funny to hear actors yell “Rumpelstiltsken!” with anger and conviction. It’s just one of those things that never sounds not silly.
  • Overt Lost callbacks: the Evil Queen’s house number is 108, the scene of Emma in the Storybrooke prison begins with a close-up of her eye opening.

Erik: If only Once Upon A Time had a little more sense of humor about itself. This is a show with a fun, goofy premise—but the two episodes that have been screened for critics treat that premise with deadly seriousness. At least that’s the case in the “real” world of the show, where the trials of the potentially amnesiac (or definitely amnesiac, because that would be a massive letdown if Henry was just a crazy kid with an overactive imagination, right?) fairy-tale characters are treated with all sorts of dark hues and Jennifer Morrison’s disbelieving, furrowed brow.

Things perk up considerably whenever the show transitions from Storybrooke to storybook, however. That has a lot to do with Ginnifer Goodwin’s performance as Snow White, a resourceful, independent re-imagining of the character enlivened by Goodwin’s considerable charms. Though she’s initially introduced as a typical damsel in distress, Goodwin’s Snow White is eventually revealed to be equal parts princess and swashbuckler, and it’s a lot of fun watching her contend with the queen’s soldiers and quip back and forth with Prince Charming.

But the fun isn’t evenly dispersed throughout what we’ve seen of Once Upon A Time so far, something it needs to work on if it’s ever going to fit in with ABC’s fluffy bloc of counter-NFL programming. An obvious wink here or there to the traits the fairy-tale characters share with their real-world counterparts won’t cut it—Horowitz and Kitsis have opened up a wonderland for themselves, and they should feel free to play in it. If the show is predicated on the way growing up disproves and obscures storybook notions of good and evil or love at first sight, it would do well not to get too hung up on real-world concerns like Emma’s paternity or Mary Margaret’s love life. Otherwise, we’re going to be in for a lot scenes of Henry trying to get things on track by shoving his picture book in our faces.

Filed Under: TV, Once Upon A Time

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