The Good: Interesting characters, Decent concept, Moments of acting
The Bad: Melodramatic/soap operatic qualities, Some very shaky acting from the leads, Special effects are inconsistent, Inconsistent use of cast.
The Basics: Once Upon A Time is an ambitious concept in its first season that tries too hard to do too many things and ends up being more unsatisfying than I originally expected.
I am a big fan of long-running television shows with complex plots and great character development that happens over the course of several seasons. I mention that at the outset of my review of Once Upon A Time Season 1 because I want it absolutely clear from the beginning that I am not biased against a concept like Once Upon A Time and that my immediate thoughts on the series (so far) are, in many ways, contrary to what I like to see on television. And yet, I can only assume that it is corporate greed on the part of the networks that drives the networks to continue a television show long past the potential of its concept. There are very few “limited series” on television, shows that begin at the beginning of the television season with the declaration that they will only be creating a season or two worth of shows. Once Upon A Time should have been a limited series like that (also this season, Revenge stood out as a series that should have been presented as a one-season endeavor).
Bolstered by the news that fantasy is hot right now, ABC Studios decided to beat the cinematic Snow White films Mirror Mirror (reviewed here!) and Snow White And The Huntsman (reviewed here!) to the punch and produce a fantasy television series. That series was Once Upon A Time and it had an ambitious concept, to blend a fantasy storyline with a present-day story and create a compelling narrative. I can only assume that show creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis gave one hell of a pitch for Once Upon A Time wherein they explained the long arcs of each of their intended seasons or that the executives at ABC put the show into production without any though to the long-term viability of the series.
Why? Once Upon A Time may have a novel concept, but it is a very limited one. The show centers around two basic locations and time periods, separated by a powerful curse. The essential idea is that in the distant past in a fantasy realm, characters like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Jiminy Cricket and an evil queen lived, loved, interacted, etc. until the day the evil queen put a curse on everyone that would allow her to retain power while causing everyone to forget their true natures. In modern day Storybrooke, Maine, each of these individuals is (essentially) reincarnated without any knowledge of their former selves (with a few exceptions). It’s a clever idea, but it really has only one of two ways to go: either the curse is lifted and magic is reborn or everything is exposed as a childish delusion of Henry (the young boy advocating the idea of the fantasy past-lives). In fact, as the show went on, I made the prediction that the one unique to the present-day character (who escaped the curse thanks to her parents Snow White and Prince Charming) would end up stranded in the fantasy realm (didn’t happen, but the end of the first season came remarkably close). The problem is, the show is pretty much over once the curse is broken or those who exist only in our world are returned to the proper present day. It would be a tough sell for most viewers, for example, to sit through season after preposterous season of the curse being lifted only to be cast again.
But, of course, I get ahead of myself. In its first season, Once Upon A Time is a half-serialized, partially episodic story that establishes the two worlds of Storybrooke, Maine and the fantasy kingdom of fairy tales. The serialized elements revolve around a rising conflict between Storybrooke mayor Regina, the adopted mother of Henry, and Emma Swan, Henry’s biological mother, who returns Henry to Storybrooke where she begins to believe his audacious theory that everyone in Storybrooke is a fairy tale character who is cursed to forget the truth and that no one under the curse can leave Storybrooke. The other heavily serialized aspect of the story is the off-again, on-again romance between Mary Margaret Blanchard and David Nolan, who starts as a John Doe in the hospital and awakens with no real memories. When David and Mary Margaret begin to hit it off, Regina finds David’s wife and gets Mary Margaret branded as an outcast.
The episodic nature of Once Upon A Time comes with the characters. Almost every episode tells a standalone story of each character (or a guest character, like Pinocchio or the Seven Dwarves and the fairy that Grumpy falls in love with) and their role in the fantasy world. These are often dark fantasy stories that put a new twist on the traditional fairy tale that one might remember. So, for example, Snow White is characterized as a thief and rebel and Prince Charming is only marrying to protect a kingdom that is not actually his. The standalone elements often have a reflection on the current events in the modern storyline or are the subject of a big reveal that is hardly as surprising as the writers might have liked (like Henry’s identity in the fantasy realm).
Once Upon A Time, in its first season, becomes very formulaic as a result. For sure, it is not as patterned as the “creature of the week” stories of Grimm (which did not successfully captivate my wife and I for the full season), but the show takes on a pretty obvious rhythm that causes it to hold up less well upon multiple viewings than one might suspect.
The other fundamental problem with Once Upon A Time is that it has far too many characters. I like complicated, rich, character-filled dramas, but Once Upon A Time stacks the show early and does not service all of the characters as well as it ought. So, for example, Ruby - the Red Riding Hood character – sits around for the first fourteen episodes before she is given her story. However, before the show deals with her, the Seven Dwarves are given an episode, with Grumpy being made a more vital character than the one who has at least showed up prior to that!
With early casting rumors for Season Two announced, Once Upon A Time seems to be promising more of the same in its second season, with additional characters. But, for the first season, the principle characters are:
Emma Swan – Essentially a bounty hunter on the outside, she arrives at Storybrooke and finds she cannot leave. Henry’s biological mother, she quickly gets into altercations with Regina. She befriends Mary Margaret who Henry believes is her mother in the fantasy world. She works to become Sheriff of Storybrooke when the prior one discovers the truth and abruptly disappears,
Mary Margaret Blanchard / Snow White – A teacher in Storybrooke and volunteer at the local hospital, she reads to David while he is in his coma. She teaches Henry and quickly rallies to Henry and Emma’s cause, especially as she wants to be with David. As Snow White in the fantasy realm, she was the Queen’s stepdaughter before becoming a bandit to undermine her authority. She met the Prince on the run and fell in love with him, though they could not be together because of his arranged marriage,
Henry Mills – The biological son of Emma and adopted son of Regina, he has a book of fairy tales he believes tells the real stories of the residents of Storybrooke. He engages in Operation Cobra to try to expose the truth, enlisting Emma in his cause, despite the danger it puts them in. In the fantasy world, he has an important relationship with the Evil Queen,
David Nolan / Prince Charming – In a coma until he wakes up to Mary Margaret’s ministrations, he is unwilling to leave his wife, Kathryn, for her when he learns he is married. In the fantasy realm, he was kept from Snow White by an arranged marriage that will save the kingdom he has been extorted to save,
Archie Hopper / Jiminy Cricket – The resident therapist in town, he believes that Henry is delusional until he makes a leap of faith. In the fantasy realm, he was used by his swindler parents and feels guilty about it,
Sidney Glass / The Magic Mirror – The local newspaper reporter and a pawn of Regina’s. In the fantasy realm, he was the secret love of the Queen whom she sacrificed as part of her strategy,
Ruby / Red Riding Hood – A waitress at the local diner who wears very little. She is pretty much a nonentity, both in the real world and the fantasy realm,
Mr. Gold / Rumpelstiltskin – The owner of the pawn shop and one of only two people who knows the truth for an absolute certainty. He represents the greatest magical power in the fantasy realm as the proverbial devil others make deals with,
and Regina Mills / The Evil Queen – The mayor of Storybrooke, she is immediately threatened by Emma’s presence and does what she can to get rid of her. She uses the Sheriff as her private enforcer. In the fantasy realm, she is the Queen that is usurped by Snow White, who uses her last bit of power to cast the curse.
The acting on Once Upon A Time is inconsistent. Lana Parrilla (Regina) and Robert Carlyle (Mr. Gold) are amazingly well-acted, including the scenes set in virtual sets (which many of the other performers seem to have trouble with). Ginnifer Goodwin oscillates between stiff and goofy. Jennifer Morrison seems decent on her own, but often is unrealistic in reactions that require her to display real emotion. Jared Gilmore’s Henry is a child actor and does about as well as one expects.
Once Upon A Time employs cg-sets for many of the big fantasy pieces. While the show has some issues with that (lighting and perspective in the virtual sets have not been perfected for this show), they get some of the more impressive CG effects remarkably right. The CG dragon, for example, is exceptional.
Still, despite the plethora of bonus features planned for the first season of Once Upon A Time, it’s too predictable and formulaic for me to enthusiastically recommend.
For other works with Jennifer Morrison, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Mr. And Mrs. Smith
House - Season 1
For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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