Review: "Once Upon A Time" Pilot Episode Is No Fairy Tale

The cast of ABC's Once Upon A Time

After watching the pilot episode of Once Upon a Time, I’m not sure that I’m totally in love with the show, and that’s because there’s one major element missing: storybook magic. That said, there’s hope of a happy ending, and that’s more than enough to make me tune in for a second chapter. Also, other puns.

There’s two parallel stories running here that will probably be somewhat familiar to anyone who’s read the Vertigo series Fables. No, this isn’t an adaptation of Fables, and in fact, the creators say they are totally unfamiliar with one of the more famous and popular comic book properties currently being published, despite the fact that it was in development as a pilot on ABC a few seasons ago, and Once Upon A Time is a show on ABC. But I digress.

The “flashback” storyline – and this, by the way, seems to be the main impact of LOST on modern genre TV plotting, that we’re required to have flashbacks – shows how Snow White and Prince Charming were cursed on their wedding day by the evil queen to have “no more happy endings.” Which is a weird thing to do to fellow ABC show Happy Endings, but again, I digress.

Snow White can’t stop thinking about the curse, despite the impending birth of her first child, so she heads on down to the dungeon to visit Rumplestilskin, played by an insanely overacting to the point of it being embarrassing Robert Carlyle. He tells the pair that their daughter will return to them on her twenty-eighth birthday, and lift the curse. In exchange, he just asks for her name. It’s Emma, by the way.

On the day Emma is born, the Evil Queen attacks, but Emma is spirited away in a magic cupboard made by Gepetto and a busty Blue Fairy, and disappears, but not before Prince Charming is mortally wounded. The Evil Queen laughs, and tells Snow White they will be taken away to the most horrible place imaginable.

Now, look, I don’t want to take too much umbrage to this, but the real world isn’t so bad. And a small sleepy town in Maine isn’t terrible either, I don’t think. If she really wanted to take them to the most horrible place imaginable, it would have to be the surface of the Lava Moon. You know, the moon that you can’t breathe on, but also, it’s made out of lava. That’s pretty horrible.

Anyway, running parallel to this, we meet Emma, who is now a 28-year-old bail bondsman, totally lonely after being left by the side of the freeway as a baby. Her 10-year-old son shows up at her door, telling her she’s the savior of all the Fables – sorry, residents of Storybrooke, Maine – and asking her to come back with him. She does, and once there, basically keeps bringing him back to his Mom, who, it turns out, is the Evil Queen.

Except… Nobody remembers who they are. And time has stopped, because, you see, the story is in stasis until Emma returns. There are no more happy endings, whether it’s Snow White sadly teaching class, or Prince Charming in a coma, or Red Riding Hood being some sort of slut or something. And then there’s Mr. Gold – Rumplestilskin – who seems to recognize Emma when he meets her.

We end with the big clock in the town, which has been frozen forever, starting to work again… Because, you see, Emma is back, and the story has started again.

There’s a number of problems with this show right now, not least of which is the weird, anachronistic acting, and the clunky dialogue. There’s also the non-stop winkiness – Granny’s Bed & Breakfast, get it? – which gets a little grating, and probably won’t stop any time soon. But the biggest problem, as I said up top, is the lack of real magic.

Not that its fair to compare to one of the best pilots ever made, but if you look at the first episode of Pushing Daisies, which also wanted a storybook feeling to it, that looked glorious, and had a tremendous amount of heart. It also felt like a full story in one hour, a brilliant feat of TV writing, and balanced emotion with great humor and creativity. This, on the other hand, feels like the first twenty minutes of a movie.

The last minute or so, as the clock restarts, actually does start to approach something magical, but it also raises concerns that, in the long run, this is going to feel extremely drawn out. If Emma is the savior of Storybrooke, the end of the story is that she, you know, saves them, and returns them to the Homelands – I mean, fairy tale land or whatever. That can’t happen until the show ends, so what happens between now and then?

If the producers can figure out a way to make this magical, or even a fairy tale of the week type format with an overarching theme, it could become something special. As of now? I’m not sure. I guess I’ll just stick a bookmark in it, and pick it up next week.

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