Once Upon a Time: Season 1, Episode 1
Every pilot season brings a few strange trends to the forefront. TV Executives presumably look at what is selling and what looms largest in the culture, and try desperately to capitalize on it. This season, I can identify three such trends ('60s set nostalgia shows aiming to capitalize on the Mad Men success, sitcoms about the "death" of masculinity, and shows about fairytales living in our world), and I have bravely decided that I will take up the third of those and examine both of the shows that try to capitalize on our apparent need for fairy tale creatures to live in our world.

I could talk about why this trend probably exists at length, but that's not really why we're here (in brief: money and a need for escapism. Fairy tales are in the public domain and thus cheap characters to utilize, and TV executives believe, not wrongly, that people want a break from harsh reality right about now). We are here to look at the first of the two fairy-tale based shows: Once Upon a Time. A few years back, both ABC and NBC were trying to bring Bill Willingham's comic series Fables, about fairy tale refugees forced to live in New York City after being cast out of their homeland by a powerful aggressor, to the small screen. Yet for various reasons (scope, subject matter, budgetary concerns), that never got off the ground. Once Upon a Time feels as if ABC decided to just get as close as they could and see how it turned out. What they got feels pretty far from Fables in just about every way that counts, yet I'm not sure the show is a complete failure. There are a lot of things I don't like about Once Upon a Time, but there are also a few things that I do like, and in a pilot as high concept as this one, that may just be enough to get me to come back.

The show opens with Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) rushing to save Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) from the spell of the evil queen (Lana Parrilla). He is told he's too late, but he tears open her glass coffin, kisses her, and she awakens. The two are wed, but their joyous day is spoiled when the Queen arrives and warns them that she will ruin all of their lives. A quick succession of flashbacks throughout the episode let us know what happens next: Snow White gets pregnant, assuages her paranoia by visiting the imprisoned Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) and hatches a scheme to escape the Queen's curse. When she goes into labor before she can escape, she decides to send her child, who is destined to save them all, away instead.

None of this is particularly original stuff, but then none of it is egregiously awful either. Obviously the story picks up 28 years later (the exact amount of time it was said the child would wait before returning) when Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is tracked down by the baby she gave up for adoption 10 years ago, Henry (Jared Gilmore) who drags her to the aptly named town of Storybrooke, Maine, where all of the fairy tales are amnesiacs and time (read: the clock in town) hasn't moved in years.

The show was created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and in many ways it feels like that show. Much of the episode is taken up by flashbacks to the land of fairy tales, and questions abound as to how this premise can possibly be sustained for seasons on end. From this pilot, it seems like only two things can possibly happen: either the characters continue to be unaware of their actual identities and the Queen just keeps winning for years, or the characters beat the Queen and the show ends. I have to imagine that there is more to this premise than initially meets the eye, but at the start, it all seems a bit thin for serialized television.

There's also a lot of strained moments in this episode, whether derived from clunky dialogue or just poor acting. Lee Arenberg (who plays Grumpy) in particular is grating to watch, though one hopes he will be given more layers (or less to do) in future episodes. And Jennifer Morrison, coming right off a stretch playing a useless character on How I Met Your Mother doesn't exactly win me over here. She isn't awful, exactly, and in fact some of my favorite moments in the episode were hers, yet her performance feels more forced than naturalistic, and that could be incredibly problematic as she is the de facto center of the show.

The character work is pretty flat across the board here, which doesn't bode well considering these are already well worn types. We are told that the Queen is evil, but that one-notedness is going to wear pretty quickly (even if Parrilla does do a pretty nice job of playing her as cold and menacing). We know that Snow White and Prince Charming love each other (like, a lot) but both of them are so bland at this point, I'm not sure how much I care. The battle our ostensible heroes are fighting doesn't seem all that complicated, nor does it look likely from this pilot that there is any grey area separating our heroes from our villain. In short, Once Upon a Time has a pretty steep hill to climb to become worthwhile television.

And yet, there are moments where everything clicks and I can see a hint of what the ideal version of this show might look like. There's a quiet scene, near the episode's opening, when Emma comes home alone and puts a single candle on a cupcake, blowing it out in a solo celebration of her birthday. It's a small moment, and yet it tells us all we need to know about her: she's alone and she puts on a brave face, but there's hurt beneath her tough exterior. Meanwhile, Robert Carlyle tears up the screen as Rumplestiltskin, creating a character that is creepy, menacing, and really, really cool in only two scenes and a few scant minutes of screen time. His performance is great stuff, and he is one of the only characters here that feels complex, interesting, and fully formed. If the rest are on their way to being as compelling as he is, there is great stuff ahead, and even if not, the show may give Carlyle enough to do that it could be fun to watch him develop Rumplestiltskin further.

Once Upon a Time has a lot of the qualities I hated about Lost in this first episode. It has a premise that seems tailor made for a lot of stalling, a structure that uses flashbacks to ensure the plot need only progress incrementally in any given episode, and no strong feeling of any direction it might be taking. The writing doesn't inspire much confidence, either, and many of the performances fall flat. Yet there's something here, at the core of this show, that could become a solid hour of television. Whether the show lives up to its potential or gives into its countless flaws remains to be seen. If I continue to watch, it will be more due to the potential I saw in those few, small moments than out of any realistic belief that the show will become great television soon. High concepts can take a while to find their footing, and many never do. If Once Upon a Time figures out how to tell its story right, given a little time to grow, there may just be a happy ending somewhere in its future.

Grade: C+


-Another potential reason to stick around: IMDB tells me Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from Breaking Bad) will be playing the Queen's magic mirror in two upcoming episodes.

-"Let me talk to him." I hate the pronoun game that shows like this so often play. It's a terrible way of drumming up tension and creating mystery. Fortunately we quickly learn that the "him" is Rumplestiltskin, and, as I mentioned above, the wait is well worth it.

-"A tree? Our fate rests on a tree? Let's get back to that fighting thing." Decent line, terrible delivery by Arenberg, who feels like he was cast for his slight resemblance to Peter Dinklage.

-That curse sure looks a lot like terrible CGI...

-"Somewhere horrible. Absolutely horrible." Maine. That place is Maine.
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