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TBTS Reviews: Once Upon a Time

October 25, 2011

Lana Parilla as "Once's" Evil Queen -- and just so you know, this is only one of 450 oh-so-clever Evil Queen/poison apple references in the show.

At the very top of this review, I really need to get this out of the way: I have to give ABC’s new drama Once Upon a Time a bit of credit for being creative, because I’m sure no one’s going to accuse it of being otherwise. In an age where every other show is a police procedural, a romantic medical potboiler  or — increasingly — a drama which takes place in the fetishized sixties, it’s nice to see someone trying something new. And Once Upon a Time has an impressive pedigree: it’s from two of the writers and executive producers of Lost, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, who’ve assumedly grown themselves a bit of clout after the mysterious island tale wrapped two years ago.

It’s just kind of a shame they wasted that clout on this. Once Upon a Time is a serialized adventure drama which opens not in an emergency room or forensics lab, but rather in a magical forest where Snow White and a host of other characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes we all know live peacefully . On the day of Snow White’s marriage to Prince Charming, the Evil Queen appears to place a forthcoming curse on the fairytale kingdom, which causes all the characters to be relocated into 2011 where they will exist not knowing who they truly are. The only person who can save the characters from this curse, we are told, is the just-born baby of Snow White, who is placed inside a magic cupboard made by Gepetto and transported to 28 years ago on the side of a freeway and ushered into the United States foster care system. This baby, who grows up to become tough-gal bounty hunter Emma Stone (yes, really), is in turn found on her 28th birthday by a son she put up for adoption ten years prior, and who now lives among the mixed-up fairy tale characters and needs her to return to them so they’ll all realize their truths and break the Queen’s curse.

Wow, it all sounds so goofy when one types it out like that.

Emma, who is very tough — we know this because she repeatedly refers to the young boy as “kid,” like she’s Indiana Jones — agrees to follow the boy to the small town of Storybrooke, Maine (yes, really), where all of the relocated characters now make their livings doing regular-people things. Snow White is now a schoolteacher. Jiminy Cricket is now a psychiatrist (and human, apparently). Rumplestiltskin is a greedy landlord shaking down money out of Granny, who runs a bed and breakfast. Little Red Riding Hood is a sexy emo teen and Grumpy the dwarf is the cantankerous town drunk (yes, really). Oh, and the Evil Queen is the mayor of the town, which seems kind of strange that she’d put a curse on the fairy tale kingdom which affects her just as much as everyone else. But at this point, we’re already swallowing a lot of ridiculousness, so we’d best not to dwell on that. Oh, and time doesn’t move for some reason, which also doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The time thing doesn’t make a lot of sense because the mythology of Once Upon a Time doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense. For starters, it’s not entirely clear what sort of “fictional” realm we’re actually dealing with. Grumpy and Doc the dwarves, for example, aren’t characterized as suchi n the European-based fairy tale of Snow White, those particular character are Disney creations based on the 1937 film.  And the Alice in Wonderland characters, who are teased for inclusion later, aren’t really fairy tales at all but rather literary characters. The same goes for the Little Mermaid. So there seems to be a bit of confusion as to who is eligible for inclusion from the storybook world. Also, the Queen attacks the kingdom on Snow White’s wedding day by placing on its head the “curse of time” and sending them to 2011 — but that’s not really “time travel.” I don’t think any of us believe that the tale of Pinocchio actually happened a long time ago. But perhaps an audience who does believe that is just right for a show like this.

Surprisingly, all of this nonsense doesn’t seem to be the overarching problem with Once Upon a Time — the bigger issue would seem to be that the show doesn’t seem to know where its audience lies. It would seem fairly family friendly (aside from Prince Charming being run through with a sword and a reference to Red Riding Hood “sleeping with half the Eastern seaboard”), with it’s way too cute young boy as an anchoring center for tough-girl-cum-storybook-savior Emma and its references to “magic” in a Spielbergian sense — but it’s not really appropriate or likely understandable for a younger audience. I also can’t imagine the majority of adults being very interested in a show like this, with all it’s mostly-corny goings-on. True, the premise of redistributing fairy tale characters with modern-day dramatic conventions is a novel one, but after that interest wears off the plot will presumably remain slightly silly. The show’s actually very Hallmarkian in nature, so perhaps Once Upon a Time’s audience is the same crowd who still enjoys an episode of Touched by an Angel or can’t wait for Christmas in Connecticut each holiday season.

If it does find its audience, however, Once Upon a Time feels like one of those classic ABC shows that runs forever on a Friday or Saturday night. I know you know exactly the type of show I’m talking about; the type which apparently some people somewhere watch. By jumping so deeply into the pond in the pilot episode, I can’t imagine that Once Upon a Time didn’t scare off a lot of people. Time (real time, not the aforementioned fairy tale time at work here) will tell whether a show like this can survive, and I hope it doesn’t discourage more networks from taking a creative chance on new and interesting premises. It’s just rather a shame that this story hasn’t translated well from what was probably a fairly entertaining pitch meeting, and that Once Upon a Time and ABC may not have the happy ending they’re hoping for here.

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