Tuned In

Test Pilot: Once Upon a Time

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Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next season’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: Once Upon a Time, ABC

The Premise: Fairytales are real. Or at least they were. In this story from a pair of Lost writers, the familiar characters from children’s fairytales have been dispelled from their world by, who else, an evil queen (Lana Parilla), made to forget their true identities and trapped in the small town of Storybrooke, Maine, where time is frozen. Their hope for salvation, apparently, is bail-bondswoman Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison). She learns of her role when she gets a visit from 10-year-old Henry (Jared Gilmore), the son she once gave up for adoption, who informs her not only that she is his mother but that she is the lost daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin). Her quest, should she accept it, is to move to Storybrooke—where Snow lift its curse its spell.

First Impressions: ABC is in a double battle of dueling premises with NBC this season, and so far it’s 2-for-2: just as Pan Am outclasses the pilot of The Playboy Club, Once Upon a Time is much more engaging than NBC’s fairytale cop procedural pilot, Grimm. Is that good enough? Maybe; the pilot is engaging and Morrison well cast in a role that requires heart, toughness and a light touch. (Tonally, it’s not like Lost so much as past fanciful ABC dramedies like Cupid.) But it also plays like a very long prologue, so here more than usual I need to see another episode or two to get a sense of what this show is going to look like week-to-week. Some viewers might be leery of a show with a Lost pedigree that involves two alternate realities, and in the pilot the real-world scenes are more convincing than the fairytale world, which oddly combine a conventional storybook look with half-archaic, half-colloquial dialogue. (Also, whatever the statutory limit on the phrase “happy ending” in a modern fairytale is, the pilot breaks it.) And the trapped-in-the-real-world premise raises a lot of questions: if everyone in fairytale land lost their memories, who wrote the book Henry gets his information from? Why exactly was the most horrible “prison” the queen could imagine a picturesque hamlet in Maine? And is Jiminy Cricket really a fairytale character? But raising questions are not necessarily a bad thing for a pilot like this to do, and in the meantime, the idea of magical characters living double lives in our world has a lot of potential.

Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? I didn’t love this pilot, but I like what it’s trying. I’ll keep turning the pages for now.