There is a school of thought in Hollywood that the best way to tell an audience a story is to make it one they’ve heard before. Hence the revival of multiple comic-book franchises, the (failed) rebooting of Charlie’s Angels and the (not failed yet) remake of Prime Suspect, the profusion of zombie and vampire stories and so on and so on.
ABC’s Once Upon a Time (debuting Sunday), like NBC’s upcoming fantasy cop-show Grimm, takes that one step further: why not retell the tales that people have heard most often, over and over, since they were babies? Why not tell them a fairytale? It starts from a very familiar base of characters and yet–though it’s going to take a while to see whether its fanciful mix of elements works–has the potential to be very different.
The story begins in the world of fairytales, with Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) having their wedding crashed by the Evil Queen (Lana Perilla), who promises to take vengeance on the dwarves, fairies and sundry other inhabitants of this magical world. (One of them is Jiminy Cricket, indicating that this particular candy-colored fantasy is less the fantasy of the Brothers Grimm and more that of ABC owner Disney.) Her plan: to stop time and imprison the characters in a mundane, awful world–ours.
In our world, the characters are trapped in the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where they work as psychologists, teachers and so on. (Seriously, how evil can a queen be whose ugliest imagination of a living hell is a white-collar job in a picturesque New England town?) The residents have lost all memory of their origin–all but one boy, Henry (Jared Gilmore), who runs off to the city to retrieve Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a bail bondswoman who he believes has the power to liberate the fairy folk.
The show is created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz of Lost, but it’s definitely a lighter confection than that show–whimsical, romantic and conscious of its magical origins. (Maybe too much so: I lost count of how many times someone alluded to a “happy ending” in the pilot.) Like Lost, its story, at least at first, is bifurcated, taking place half in the magical world, half in ours.
The magical one so far, though, is less enchanting. The costumes and appointments are what you’d expect, the special effects numerous but not very special, and Kitsis and Horowitz don’t really seem to have rethought Snow White and the other fairytale characters beyond the archetypes they started as. As a result, it’s hard to get too invested in their struggles and their endings, happy or otherwise.
If Once Upon a Time is to connect with us, it will have to be in the real world, and there it shows more promise. Morrison is instantly appealing as Swan, a tough sleuth whose abilities–she can instantly tell if anyone is lying–seem connected with her own issues with having been abandoned as a baby, and later, having given up a baby for adoption. (If everyone on Lost had daddy issues, in Once they have mommy issues.) The quest she gets from Henry strikes her ridiculous, but he doesn’t seem to be lying, and you get the sense that she needs some kind of purpose; when we first meet her, she’s celebrating her birthday alone, with a solitary cupcake. (Which, after this summer’s Bridesmaids, is apparently now the go-to pastry of loneliness.)
The tone of the show overall is reminiscent of past light, fanciful ABC dramedies like Cupid; it’s sweet, often funny and maybe most important, conveys the sense that the writers are having fun finding where to fit Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, &c. into our world. I ended the first hour smiling, but not feeling deeply invested in the characters, and because it spends so much time simply establishing the premise, I’ll have to wait to see if future installments integrate the worlds better and create a sense of greater stakes. (Disclosure: I’m basing this on the pilot alone. ABC made available a third episode but not the second, which seems to me a particularly bad way to assess a fairly serial drama.) For now, it’s an enticing cupcake, but I want to see if it’s more than frosting all the way down.