ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” (Sunday at 8 p.m.) is one of two new shows this season in which fairy tale characters start appearing in modern-day America, with NBC’s fairy tale crime procedural “Grimm” debuting next Friday. Every TV season brings with it at least one set of weird dopplegangers like this – this one actually has several (“Mad Men”-era dramas, and sitcoms about the death of masculinity) – but the abundance of fairy tale stories seems less surprising than most.
From a Hollywood standpoint, fairy tales are very good business for two reasons: 1)Everybody knows them, and 2)Nobody owns them. Though Disney has made what many consider the definitive versions of Snow White, Cinderella, etc., those characters are hundreds of years old and exist in the public domain for anyone to dust off and try to make some money with.
And yet because those beloved Disney versions exist, there’s an understandable desire to try to attack the stories from a different angle, and plucking the characters out of the days of the Brothers Grimm and into the modern world has been a popular one – to try, if not to work.
In the ’80s, for instance, ABC did a short-lived sitcom called “The Charmings,” in which Snow White and Prince Charming were sent forward to a 20th century California suburb. Back in 2000, NBC put on an expensive (and ultimately low-rated) miniseries called “The 10th Kingdom,” in which fairy tale characters wandered through Manhattan and than a Manhattanite wound up in the fairy tale world hanging out with the Big Bad Wolf and friends. Since 2002, DC Comics has published “Fables,” an award-winning series in which all the classic characters wind up living in contemporary New York after their homeland is overrun by an evil conqueror.
Both NBC and ABC tried to turn “Fables” into a TV series at various points, but ultimately it never worked out. That’s probably for the best, given that the series’ scope would be too expensive for TV, and its content far too frank for a broadcast network. (I’ll put it this way: if my kids were to stumble across any of the scenes involving Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I’d have to put them in therapy for life.)
So instead, we get the very similar but not identical “Once Upon a Time,” in which the wicked queen (Lana Parrilla) gets her vengeance on Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and the rest by casting a curse that transports them into the mundane modern world, with no memory of who and what they once were. Jiminy Cricket, for instance, is now a human therapist named Archie (Raphael Sbarge), Snow White is an elementary school teacher named Mary Margaret, and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is a local businessman.
Other than the queen – now the mayor of the little hamlet of Storybrooke, Maine – the only free survivor of the fairy tale kingdom is Snow and Charming’s baby daughter Emma, who’s protected from the spell and grows up a tough orphan who doesn’t know where she really comes from. In the present day (played by Jennifer Morrison), she’s confronted by Henry (Jared Gilmore), the son she gave up for adoption – and who’s now conveniently being raised in Storybrooke, and who has figured out about the curse.
All of this is a lot of backstory that brings Emma to Storybrooke, at first to reconnect with the son she had tried to forget, but then because she begins to think he doesn’t just have an overactive imagination.
“Once Upon a Time” was created by “Lost” writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (they tended to write the Hurley-centric episodes, among other specialties), and they’ve given the series a very “Lost” structure, in which each episode bounces back and forth between the real world and the fairy tale one. And we see that even though none of the classic characters know who they really are, some part of them is still driven by events that happened long ago and far away.
As with “Lost,” there’s also a question at the start about how long they can sustain this idea. “Lost” ultimately managed to get six seasons out of people trapped on a strange island, albeit with some bumps (and occasional escapes) along the way. The set-up of “Once Upon a Time” seems even more restricting: either Snow and company find out who they are and the show runs out of material, or they stay under the queen’s thumb for a very long time and it gets annoying. I imagine that, as with their “Lost” bosses, Kitsis and Horowitz have something more complicated in mind than that binary equation, but there are definite bumps in the early going.
I’ve seen the first and third episode (ABC didn’t make the second available for review), and I was already feeling tired of the queen’s omnipotence by the end of the third. It’s a one-note character (though Parrilla tries her best to invest her with more than just a need to be eeeeeevil) who holds all the cards. This isn’t like “Lost,” in that viewers aren’t kept in the dark about what’s going on, but Snow and Charming and friends are just as clueless as Jack was when he was being held captive by the Others.
The larger problem, though, is that unless you’re deeply invested in the fairy tale characters and seeing the variations on their familiar backstories – seeing, for instance, that Snow and Charming had a very different first meeting than the one we know about – then most of the story and character work is flat, despite a cast of likable, game actors. Carlyle has fun hamming it up as Rumplestiltskin, and Morrison and Gilmore (Bobby Draper #3 from “Mad Men”) have a nice rapport. They’re also more fun to watch than everyone else because they know who they are and what’s going on, while most of the other regulars are moving through a fog. Mary Margaret isn’t an interesting character on her own; she’s just a thin mask somebody strapped to Snow White’s face.
Because of that, the fairy tale flashbacks are somewhat more interesting, because at least the characters are who they are and act with free will the whole time. It’s also amusing that, after the pilot, the writers apparently decided to let the characters all speak in a modern idiom, so you’ll hear Snow White say things like, “Good luck with that” and “I’m good.”
If I stick with “Once Upon a Time,” it’ll be more out of potential – out of having enjoyed the work of many of the show’s writers, of liking Goodwin so much on “Big Love,” etc. – than anything that’s in these early episodes. It’s a high-concept show, and sometimes high-concept shows come strong out of the gate the way “Lost” did, while others need time to find themselves.
And if it never does? Then someone else will try a variation on this theme a few years from now.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org