TV Review: ABC’s ‘Once Upon a Time’

10.23.11 7 years ago 16 Comments
Like many pieces of oral tradition, fairy tales are built heavily upon both structure and repetition. 
Stories begin with “Once upon a time” or “In the beginning.” They end with “And they all lived happily ever after” or a moral of some sort. In between, they trade upon familiar character types — Wicked queens, charming princes, trolls and dwarves, seemingly unbreakable curses and true love everlasting. 
Similar versions of the same fairy tales pop up across dozens of cultures without a clear common source binding them all together.
So really, it’s amusingly appropriate that ABC and NBC are both premiering “Fairy Tales in the Modern World” TV dramas in the same week, that both dramas practically force pop culture-aware critics and viewers to compare them to Bill Willingham’s comic series “Fables,” and yet neither drama has any literal connection to “Fables” at all (or even a non-literal connection, since the “What if fairy tales were real?” hypothetical isn’t a copyrightable premise). 
As I’ll eventually get around to writing later this week, NBC’s “Grimm” is too beholden to its structure, with an excruciatingly dull procedural format sucking all of the magic from its premise. 
ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” in contrast, suffers from insufficient structure and from excessive repetition. Having “Once Upon a Time” air on the same network and “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” makes the show’s banal romantic platitudes seem less magical than they would in a different context. Once an elementary school teacher believes that an evening making out with a douche-y pilot in a hot tub can be categorized as “a fairy tale,” seeing the “real” (“fantastical”) thing is an inevitable disappointment. 
In the head-to-head new series battle, “Once Upon a Time” is a clear winner over “Grimm,” which is both dismal and doomed to swift failure on Friday nights on NBC. 
My biggest problem with “Once Upon a Time” is that I’ve seen two episodes and I don’t quite know what the week-to-week series is and while that isn’t always a problem on a new show, it’s a problem on a show where I’m not instantly hooked and instantly prepared to commit to the journey without some reassurances.
More after the break…
“Once Upon a Time” begins in Fairy Tale Land, where we witness the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) interrupting Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming’s (Josh Dallas) wedding and vowing to destroy their happiness, as evil queens are prone to do.
Zip forward to Our World, where Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is a skip tracer (bail bondswoman, if you prefer) celebrating her 28th birthday alone. Complications ensue when Henry (Jared Gilmore) shows up at her door and announces that he’s the son she gave up for adoption 10 years earlier. Oddly, she barely questions the veracity of that story and willingly opts to drive him back home to the town of Storybrooke, Maine. She begins to get skeptical, though, when Henry tries claiming that Storybrooke is a town made up entirely of fairy tale characters cursed to live in this small town without any memory of who they once were and without any hope for happy endings. Henry insists that Emma is also a part of this fairy tale tableau and that it’s her destiny to break the Evil Queen’s curse.
“Once Upon a Time” was created by “Lost” veterans Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who are being mismarketed by ABC as “The Writers of ‘Lost,'” rather than “A Couple Guys From The Writing Staff of ‘Lost,’ But Not The Guys You Want To Blame If You Didn’t Like the End of ‘Lost.'” Kitsis and Horowitz learned that flashbacks are a good way of elongating a story that maybe doesn’t have a clear through-narrative. As a result, both of the episodes I’ve watched are divided half in our world where Henry keeps insisting that Emma’s going to help save Storybrooke and half in Fairy Tale Land, where we see what our characters used to look like in their alternate, more imaginative reality, living out slightly revised versions of familiar fairy tales. 
It’s entirely possible that your results will vary, but my own “Once Upon a Time” preference was for the stuff in the real world. I’d have preferred a quirkier, “Twin Peaks”-style approach in which viewers were gradually able to recognize how the fairy tale characters had been reinterpreted in our mundane reality. The Fairy Tale Land stuff tested my capacity for whimsy, but also tested my capacity for less-than-cinematic small screen special effects and theme park costuming. “Once Upon a Time” doesn’t look cheap, but it lacks the production values to make Fairy Tale Land an endlessly evocative place to spend time, especially when compared to something like “Game of Thrones” or “The Borgias,” which have set the bar high for ornate worlds in a similar vein. I was also irked by the failure to find a consistent voice for Fairy Tale Land, where the characters have heightened speech in the pilot, but use tin-eared modern inflections in the third episode. 
But I understand why the writers want to spend time in Fairy Tale Land, where they get to play in the sandbox filled with time-tested stories that don’t tell themselves, but which certainly have a momentum of their own. And there are absolutely no limitations to the Fairy Tale Land possibilities, since the writers decided that “Once Upon a Time” isn’t restricted to only one source of stories. Henry has a Big Book of Fairy Tales that might as well, to borrow from “The Simpsons,” be called “Tales From the Public Domain.” So yes, we’re dealing primarily with Grimm-endorsed tales, but we also get Pinocchio, who first appeared in Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book, as well as Jiminy Cricket, who barely exists in Collodi’s book, but came to life in the 1940 Disney film. I’m assuming that if “Once Upon a Time” lasts five or six seasons, we’ll tap into Greek myths, Native American spirit tales and Aesop fables. Storybrooke looks like a small town, but it doesn’t need to be.
More importantly than that, the more time you spend in Fairy Tale Land, the less time you have to spend wondering what machine, exactly, is operating on Our World.
The writers obviously have great affection for fairy tales, but they somehow opted to ignore that curses in stories like this are rarely just broken. Yes, a simple fairy tale might say that the prince kisses the cursed/sleeping princess and she wakes up, but more frequently there are a finite number of things that the hero has to do in order to accomplish their goal. Young Henry should know that as well as anybody, but he doesn’t know what it will take for Emma to break the curse and, because of that, viewers don’t know either. And if I don’t know what it’s going to take to break the curse and none of the characters know what it’s going to take to break the curse, the story has no engine. Both episodes I’ve watched have a “Let’s wander around in Storybrooke until it’s time for the next flashback” nebulousness. 
The story badly needs clear objectives for Emma and, more crucially, a source for urgency. The clocks don’t work in Storybrooke, but otherwise it’s not such a bad place. The Evil Queen’s curse is that they don’t remember who they were, but so what? People in Storybrooke aren’t in such dire straits that their saving seems to require immediacy. Henry seems to think it’s crucial that the characters remember who they were and that’s the only structure I can see to the story, but is each week’s episode going to be Emma going around making people maybe kinda sorta remember something? To what end? What will happen if they remember? What will happen if they don’t? The answer to these questions are the difference between my being convinced that “Once Upon a Time” is actually a weekly TV series, rather than perhaps being better suited as a cable series or even just as a close-ended miniseries. I don’t know the game that Kitsis and Horowitz are playing, much less what the endgame is. And since fairy tales themselves aren’t unending, “Once Upon a Time” feels off.
I’ll have a certain amount of patience with “Once Upon a Time,” because leaving aside my frustrations with not knowing what the series is (and my lack of meaningful connection to any of the characters), the show is full of likable actors doing work which, at least initially, is enjoyable to watch. 
Because the show doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be, the performances are good, but they’re pitched on a lot of different levels. I liked Jennifer Morrison getting to be tough-as-nails as Emma, a good change of pace after all of her years suffering through the Multiple Personality Disorder of the “House” team’s inability to write female characters and also her partial season as The Least Likable Woman in the World on “How I Met Your Mother.” Morrison’s performance is grounded, as is Goodwin’s perfectly natural turn as Snow White. Coming out of a different show, you have Parrilla and Robert Carlyle having a hammy good time as the Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin. 
“Once Upon a Time” is blessed or cursed with a surplus of characters and fine actors, so the third episode doesn’t even include Carlyle or Raphael Sbarge (as Jiminy Cricket and a shrink named Archie) for a cameo, though it introduces Anastasia Griffith (“Trauma”), one of many recognizable actors who will be dropping by in the weeks to come. 
Actors aren’t the only folks drawn to “Once Upon a Time,” which fleshed out its writing staff with talented folks like “Buffy” and “Battlestar” vet Jane Espenson and “Life Unexpected” creator Liz Tigelaar. With writers this good, hopefully future episodes will find a way to trust that viewers remember their fairy tale tropes without quite the obsessive repetition of “happy endings” and “true love,” because although I started this review by saying that this is a form that thrives on repetition, there’s a difference between repetition in a 10-page Grimm story and repetition in a 44 minute TV series.
My appetite for whimsy and swooning fairy tale romanticism isn’t boundless and it will only keep me watching for a certain amount of time before I start desperately needing “Once Upon a Time” to gain some momentum or at least to be about something. In the pilot, one character pedantically notes that fairy tales are “a way for us to deal with our world,” which isn’t untrue, which makes it more disappointing that “Once Upon a Time” doesn’t appear to be using fairy tales to say anything notable about the actual world of 2011. It might take subtext or structure for me to keep watching, but you might be swept up immediately. We’ll see if I stick around long enough to find out what the moral of the story ends up being.
“Once Upon a Time” premieres on ABC in a couple minutes.

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