Let's get this first bit out of the way: Once Upon A Time isn't Fables nor is it trying to be Bill Willingham's comic. There was no small amount of fuss when the series was first announced by ABC which Willingham was even kind enough to defuse by saying that beyond the superficial similarities of two concepts that are at their core "fairy tales in the real world," Once Upon A Time creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis were doing their own thing.
Indeed: where Willingham was creating a long-form political drama leading to a war, Horowitz and Kitsis are dealing in soap opera here (albeit compulsively watchable soap opera). In spite of a collection of unrestrained, sometimes hammy performances, the occasional bit of dodgy CG, and no small amount of camp, Once Upon A Time is actually a very well-structured drama with an action-adventure heart.
The series is set in the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where bail bondsman Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is reunited with Henry (Jared Gilmore), the young son she gave up for adoption when he was an infant. Thanks to a story book, Henry's convinced that his hometown is cursed, populated with fairy tale characters who've forgotten themselves and reigned over by the evil Queen Regina (Lana Parilla), who also happens to be Henry's adoptive mother and mayor of Storybrooke. Henry is also convinced that his teacher, the sweet and wholesome Mary Margaret (Ginner Goodwin) is actually Snow White, and he's able to name any number of other "victims" of the curse throughout the town.
Oh, and apparently Emma is Snow's daughter and the only one who can life the curse.
While Emma is kind of the picture of pragmatism, when she sees how cold and not-quite-loving Henry's household is, she decides to stick around and play along with what seems like his delusion. But thanks to a series of flashbacks throughout the season, we're clued in to the fairy tale world from which the Storybrooke residents originated as well as the tricks and machinations Regina put into place to create a kind of permanent purgatory for the people of the kingdom, specifically for Snow. Why Regina doesn't want Snow to get her happy ending is one of the big questions the series plays with throughout its first season, along with who actually remembers what (and how) from the old world.
The jumbled chronology of the flashback sequences provide the spine for the series, as we start to get a clearer picture of the relationship between Snow, Regina, and Charming (Josh Dallas). Snow is reimagined as a tough forest warrior and exile from her own kingdom, while the queen is a deliciously vampy conniver and manipulator. And then there's Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) who runs a pawn shop and holds most of the Storybrooke residents under his thumb.
In many cases, the series pulls from parent company Disney's versions of these fairy tale characters--the Seven Dwarves and Maleficent make appearances along with clothing and costumes from the animated features. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that some of the architecture in the, let's say "magic" kingdom were all lifted straight from the cartoons. The brand linking doesn't end there: keep an eye out for Henry's collection of Marvel comics and a spinner rack at the local drugstore stuffed only with stories from the House of Ideas.
The performances are across the board, big and broad, as are the emotions in the series. Regina is the most evil of the evil, redeemed only by her love for Henry while Snow is the most decent of all. Emma is really the only morally ambiguous character, and really, that just translates into her taking a while to arrive at the right decision. Carlyle, with his oily insinuations and slight limp in the Storybrooke portion of the show is the real standout: a villain whose motives don't really become clear until the final episodes and one who might have even more to do with the state of Storybrooke than Regina.
But back to the morality of the series which is really quite simple: the good must do good or bad things will happen. In fact, throughout the show, the worst thing that can possibly happen is a decent person doing a bad thing, a lie potentially damning them and everyone around them (and sometimes doing almost as much damage as the villains). I won't get into the weird adoption stuff in the show, specifically how in no less than four plots nothing worse in the world cam be imagined than a child put up for adoption.
To pick on the effects or some of the makeup work would be beside the point (although Carlyle in particular has to suffer under a perm and scaly skin as Rumplestiltkin). This is TV and these are TV budgets and visions and for what it is, Once Upon A Time is wildly engaging. I wanted to find out how the curse would be lifted and how the peculiar magic kingdom logic would start working its way into our world. That the finale is satisfying, has a dragon, and shatters the rules in such an interesting way has me looking forward to the second season.
The set includes commentary in selected episodes from the cast and creators along with deleted scenes and a blooper reel. The Blu-ray has the exclusive featurette, "Once Upon A Time: Origins" hosted by actor Josh Dallas which looks back at the historical roots of some of the fairy tales featured in the series. The "Building Character" featurette walks through the evolution of the Belle character in the show, while "Welcome to Storybrooke" shows how the series took over a small village in British Columbia; finally "The Story I Remember... Snow White" features the cast of Once Upon A Time reminiscing about how they first heard the fairy tale.
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.