Once Upon a Time there was a woman with a troubled past, a young boy who believed in fairytales and an evil queen with an equally evil agenda. This is the set up for ABC’s newest series Once Upon a Time.
Fairy tales and their characters are real, at least, within their own plain of existence. Everything is always happily ever after and filled with hope. The Evil Queen has had enough of this happy-go-lucky world and conjures up a curse that thrusts all of the princes and princesses, seven dwarves, talking crickets, name-stealing trolls and the rest of fairytaleland into the real world. More specifically, she exiles them to Storybrooke, Maine. Her goal is for them to suffer in a world where not everything has a happy ending. It’s a good goal and it would work too (and definitely be more interesting) if the beloved characters actually remembered who they really are. How can they truly suffer if they don’t know what they’ve lost?
There is only one person who can save them. Enter, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a single woman with a troubled past. Emma is, unknowingly, the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas); who, in her 28th year will be the only one who can save the fairytale characters from their ghastly fate. At least, that’s what Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) predicted. Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore) is Emma’s son that she gave up for adoption. He’s being raised by Storybrooke’s Mayor, Regina, AKA the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla). An ambitious ten year old, he tracks down Emma and brings her back to Storybrooke so she can begin her quest…once she gets over her disbelief.
The production value of Once Upon a Timeis nothing short of extraordinary.The sets, costuming, and makeup are all beautifully detailed and realistic. Exceptional cinematography makes the fairytale scenes incredibly engrossing. I also found myself wishing I could watch the show on an IMAX screen.
The only disappointment, stylistically, for me, was Snow White’s hair. Perhaps I’m wrong and maybe her wedding updo was supposed to be an homage to Mickey Mouse? It would make sense given Disney’s history with Snow White. Her shorter “real world” hair is what bothered me most though. The need to make a drastic distinction between the Snow White of fairytales and the Snow White in the real world (now named Mary Margaret Blanchard) is an understandable one. However, it could have been done with a more flattering haircut.
Pilot episodes have the incredible burden of grabbing and keeping viewers. Because of this, there’s an inherent need to cram as much of the overriding plot as possible into the first episode. This is what happened with Once Upon a Time. The writers managed to cram so much of the plot into the first episode that character development felt transparent. To stretch the show out for more than one or two seasons and to engage the viewer with the characters, I would have liked to see more focus on character development with a slowly revealed or hinted at plot. A sense of mystery would help hook viewers and keep them wanting to learn more. As it is, it feels as though the viewers know most of the story and now we’re just waiting for details such as “what will Prince Charming’s real world job be?” “How will Emma find out she’s Snow White’s daughter?” “Will the Evil Queen/Mayor pass a town ordinance banning tacky lawn ornaments?”
While so chock full of plot that it wasn’t particularly engaging, Once Upon a Time stands out as a rarity in television programming. Bringing fantasy mainstream is a risky venture that more often than not, doesn’t work. Take ABC’s cancelled summer series The Gates for example. Like The Gates, Once Upon a Time has a strong, believable and incredibly talented cast. It will be interesting to see if and how other fairytales are incorporated (maybe the Little Mermaid is a dolphin trainer at the local aquarium?) into the story and the way in which the fairytale characters will realize who they actually are. Once Upon a Time does an excellent job of capturing the hope and fantasy of fairytales with a modern, if not sinister, twist.