Once Upon A Time TV Review – ABC

The pre-mid-season efforts from the major networks are a wild affair at the best of times, and this season we’re seeing just how far this unique mix of shows can go. With ABC‘s Once Upon a Time and NBC‘s Grimm kicking off rather near each other, we’re about to find out if audiences are ready for the strangest of the strange to show their faces on network television.

We saw a certain amount of this sort of fare last season, and none of it turned out very well. What’s interesting, is that it just keeps coming. Not only have we managed a wide range of original shows that are “out there,” like last season’s Eastwick, but we’ve also tried out hand at transporting shows that are already successful, like the attempt at running Merlin on NBC (of course, we had to move that to Syfy).

While a variety of similar shows and mini-series have worked out rather well on cable networks, nothing has gotten a good foothold on the primetime, major network market in a quite a while (not counting the CW, well… work out why I’m not counting them on your own).

The current theory seems to be that if you’re going to have a show that’s taking on a fairly screwy premise, you’ve got to go big or go home. At least, that seems to be where Once Upon a Time is coming from. Not only is it big insofar as the level of push and (more or less) the overall production, but it’s pretty big in the level of screwy it’s throwing at you as well.

The show opens in… well, I don’t know, Fairytale Land or whatever, and we watch as Prince Charming rescues Snow White, and then marries her. All seems quite well for a few moments, but then the Evil Queen barges in and threatens to curse everyone in… wherever we are. Cut to Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) and the real world. Emma is a bail bondsman who collects her own bounties, and ten-year-old Henry has just shown up at her door. It turns out that he is the son she gave up for adoption, and now Emma has to return him to Storybrooke, Maine.

 

Well it turns out that the inhabitants of Storybrooke are the characters from Fairytale, only trapped in the real world, and with no knowledge of their “other” selves. Henry knows all about what’s going on though, and in keeping with Rumplestiltskin’s (Robert Carlyle) prediction, Emma (who is actually the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White) has returned on her 28th birthday to… right wrongs or whatnot, I guess.

So, what we end up with, as a show, is a situation wherein Emma has to somehow be convinced that the people in Storybrooke are the alter-egos of those who are from Fairytale, despite the fact that such “normal” folk as Mary Margaret, Mr. Gold, and Archie Hopper, don’t know that they are Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, and for some reason, Jiminy Cricket. Once we get her on board, with the help of Henry and his book that reveals things that really happened (or something), then we can… well, it isn’t clear what we’ll do really.

Here is a show that, if nothing else, makes quite clear the idea that one of the creative minds behind it also helped create LOST, because the only thing you can really be sure of (so far), is that you have no idea how to predict what you’re going to get in the next episode. The premise layout (even considering the utterly shoddy treatment I’ve given it) seems like something that is at best a mini-series, and yet we’re meant to somehow find ourselves captivated enough for the long haul. Even after watching the pilot (available at ABC’s website now), things are offered up as though, basically – Emma will eventually be convinced of the truth, a random assortment of “hijinx” and “antics” will lead to the people of Storybrooke moving closer to the truth themselves, which leads to some fantastic battle, and Shazam! Happily Ever After.

 

How this setup turns into something episodic, with no projected ending is anyone’s guess, and the question is, does anyone care to guess?

There’s a certain amount of fun to be found here, and moving beyond the pilot there is a level of charm that the characters deliver. In fact, if there is any real hope for the show, it is in the way the characters are given to the audience (though mostly post-pilot to be honest). It’s tough to argue against the imagination at work here, but I’m not sure there is enough for viewers to take hold of, especially when I have to consider that they probably better do it quick.

As usual, I’d love to see a show like this take off, and this one may be among the best chances we’re going to get anywhere in the near future (mainly because it gets to say “LOST“, and isn’t afraid to), but I’m not sure I see people grabbing onto this with both hands, and I’m less sure what would inspire the water-cooler talk that gives it real legs. It’s actually rather fun, but as much as you have to go big here, you need a big hook as well, and this is a show that comes across as determined not to have a hook. We’ll see how that works out.

 

Emma Swan’s life has been anything but a fairytale. A 28-year-old bail bondsperson, she’s been taking care of herself since she was abandoned as a baby. But when Henry—the son she gave up 10 years ago—finds her, everything changes. Henry is desperate for his mom’s help and thinks that Emma is actually the long, lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. Yes, the actual Snow White and Prince Charming. Even stranger, Henry believes that Storybrooke, the sleepy New England town he calls home, is really part of a curse cast by the Evil Queen, freezing fairytale characters in the modern world with no memory of their former selves.

Of course the seen-it-all Emma doesn’t believe a word, but when she gets to Storybrooke, she can’t help sensing that everything’s not quite what it seems. As Henry shows Emma around with the help of his fairytale book, the town, and its inhabitants like Henry’s therapist Archie Hopper and the enigmatic Mr. Gold, seem just strange enough to set off her already suspicious nature. She becomes even more concerned for Henry when she meets his adopted mother, Regina, who he suspects is none other than the Evil Queen herself!

Storybrooke is a place where magic has been forgotten—but is still powerfully close—and happily ever after seems just out of reach. In order to understand where the fairytale world’s former inhabitants came from, and what ultimately led to the Evil Queen’s wrath, you’ll need a glimpse into their previous lives. But it might just turn everything you’ve ever believed about these characters upside-down.

Meanwhile, the epic battle for the future of all worlds, modern and fairytale alike, is about to begin. For good to win, Emma will have to accept her destiny and fight like hell.

Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, two master storytellers behind Lost and Tron: Legacy, invite everyone to brace themselves for a modern fairytale with thrilling twists and hints of darkness, brimming with wonder and filled with the magic of our most beloved stories.

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Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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