There was this moment in the pilot of ABC's Once Upon a Time. In this moment, a little boy watches as the mother who gave him up for adoption loses control for just a second and bursts into frustrated tears. The context of that small moment really isn't important for the purposes of this review. What's important is that it was in that moment I realized I didn't want the episode to end. I didn't want to wait another week to keep getting to know this world and these characters, and that's really the first time that's happened to me this fall season with any new show. Once Upon a Time is not without its flaws, and I can see why some people are having issues with it, but for various reasons I will elaborate on shortly: I'm in.
Once Upon a Time is the brainchild of former Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. It tells the story of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a woman who has a mysterious connection to the even more mysterious Storybrooke, Maine, a town that is chock-a-block full of fairy-tale characters come to life. The catch? None of them know who they actually are. They don't remember being cursed into this unending prison by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), and they certainly don't remember that there is only one person who can save them. (I'm betting you can guess the who, but I'm not telling you the why . . . watch it and find out for yourself.)
I'm not sure how quickly the residents of Storybrooke are going to catch on to what's happening, or how fast the storytelling is going to move in this show, but the concept has a lot of potential, if it's played right. In fact, that potential is a large part of why I find the show so captivating. It's fired up my imagination in a way that no other new show this fall has done. If Kitsis and Horowitz (two men who are responsible for some of my favorite Lost episodes, just as a point of interest) play their cards right, this show could be fantastic.
Of course, there are also a lot of ways it could go wrong.
The production values are stunning--this is definitely the most beautiful new show of the season--and the writing is solid, if nothing spectacular. I didn't have my world rocked by any beautifully crafted verbiage, and nothing was really "quotable," but aside from a few cliches (and really, shouldn't we expect fairy-tale characters to slip some of those in once in a while?) it felt passable. In terms of dialogue, all the fairy-tale characters speak in modern vernacular, which is kind of jarring, but the actors delivering the lines are so engaging that it almost (I say almost) doesn't matter. I found it hard to take my eyes off of Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White/Mary Margaret Blanchard) and Jennifer Morrison (Emma Swan) in particular, although I think it might just be Robert Carlyle's portrayal of the mad Rumpelstiltskin that we should be watching closely (that man was wasted on Stargate Universe). The structure of the show is also a bit Lost-ian. The present is punctuated with forays into the fairy-tale past, illuminating events and themes in a non-chronological manner. (That structure is something that worked well for Lost in its six year run, but I do hope Once Upon a Time can find a way to use those flashbacks in a way that sets itself apart from its sister show. Been there, done that, you know?)
Some questions/issues that I have: It's quite a bit of a stretch, even for me, to believe that Emma would stay in Storybrooke. Maybe there's some stuff going on under the surface, some connection she feels to the place, or to her kid, but if that's the case, we as viewers don't know about it, and we're left to fill in the blanks ourselves. It was unclear (at least, to me) whether or not Regina Mills/The Evil Queen was a victim of the curse or not. I'm assuming she's not, because that makes the most sense, but it could have been read either way as the story is presented. I'll almost be disappointed if she is aware of what's going on. How great would it have been if her spell had backfired on her? Speaking of The Evil Queen, probably the largest issue I have with the show as of now is Her Majesty. Lana Parrilla does an admirable job attempting to bring subtlety to her overwhelming menace, particularly in the scenes set in Storybrooke, where Regina comes off as being a normal woman with just a hint of razor underneath. The problem here is that so far The Evil Queen largely comes off as an over-the-top, one-note baddie. Maybe in future episodes, they plan on dealing with this, but I find that the villains you remember, the villains that still make Best-Of lists twenty years later, are the complicated ones. Maybe the ones you can empathize with. And right now, there isn't really anything complex about The Evil Queen. You know her name? Because that's pretty much all you need.
The best and worst thing about Once Upon a Time so far is that I have no idea where it's going. I mentioned above that this show had engaged my imagination, and that's actually one of the highest compliments I could pay it right now, but it's also a dangerous position for the show to place itself in. This pilot mostly concerned itself setting up its tricky premise, introducing the major players, and the extremely large cast of minor characters that will populate its world, so it's the next few weeks that will be the real teller. Throughout the pilot, various characters emphasize that our world is a prison for these people because it's a place where happy endings don't exist, and that got me wondering: What kind of story is this show telling? Is this the kind of show that will string us along for years, only to give us exactly what we started out with in the first five minutes? (A happy ending.) Or is this the kind of show that is willing to change its characters, to let its storytelling evolve, and in turn to let that evolve the show? Is this the kind of show willing to question the validity of those happy endings? This is probably the thing I'll be watching for. The nature of the show's premise could allow for some thrilling, intelligent television . . . but it could also end up giving us the same old same old magical soap opera. I'm hoping for the former.
Your mileage may vary on most of this, depending upon your levels of fondness for the actors, and for the fairy-tales they're bringing to life, but this is definitely a show worth checking out. Sound off in the comments.