“Once Upon A Time” (Or Maybe Twice) [Review]

Promo Shot for ONCE UPON A TIME on ABC

When a story begins “ONCE UPON A TIME”, you fully expect it to end “AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER”. We’ve come to expect that throughout our childhoods.

However, as we become busy, jaded, “serious” adults, we tend to lose the so-called “innocence of our youth”. We start to see these fairy tales as quaint. When we revisit them, outside of reading them to our children, we filter them through our adult eyes. This has happened for many years. Cartoons have always adapted the tales to their popular characters and given them a modern attitude. FRACTURED FAIRY TALES told the stories with a cockeyed sense of humor.

Even Disney films, which thrive on classic tale adaptation, tend to add a cute mouse or some other convention to adapt the story for the screen. SHREK made it’s fortune churning these characters with tons of pop-culture swagger,

The main conceit of fairy tales are that they happen in a land “far,far away”, and by that concept, they are very different from our own lives. But what if they weren’t. What if fairy tale type citizens could become part of our real world? Whether it is the imagination of a wonderful story-telling grandfather and his grandson in PRINCESS BRIDE, the sitcom life of a late 70’s ABC show called THE CHARMINGS, or the hurried escape and chase from a cartoon kingdom to the streets of NYC in ENCHANTED, fairy tales have become fodder for films and shows that break the wall between the tales of whimsy and the world we know all too well.

Prince Charming And Snow White

Such is the case in the new ABC Sunday Night show ONCE UPON A TIME. Designed to appeal to a family audience, yet paired up with shows like DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, “OUAT” has a tough road to go. For the pilot episode, it drew either 12.8 million viewers, or according to ABC promos, it drew 16 million. The question will be do people return after sampling it or do they default to other programming, especially when things like Sunday Night Football end.

In brief, the concept is that the EVIL QUEEN (played by Lana Parilla) has a major hissy fit when PRINCE CHARMING (Josh Dallas) revives and marries SNOW WHITE (Ginnifer Goodwin). On their wedding day, the Queen curses them with the threat that their fairy tale life will end and she will send them to a terrible place.

Turns out that terrible place is in Maine. Who knew?

The show intercuts between the real world and the fairy tale world to advance the story of the pilot. While the show does a nice job of creating the beautiful fairy tale kingdom, that is a major question that I have about the show: Except for possible flashbacks, now that all the characters are in Storybrook, Maine, what purpose is there to head back to the kingdom, except for maybe misdirection or maguffins?

Back to our tale, it seems that Prince Charming and Snow White got busy with it pretty fast, and Snow is pregnant. It is nearing time for the baby to arrive and it is nearing time for the Queen’s revenge to arrive. In the desire to defeat the Queen’s curse, they go to see the really evil and obtuse RUMPLESTILSKIN (Robert Carlyle). Rumps looks and sounds a bit like the bridge-keeper in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, but with two good eyes. In exchange for the name of her unborn child, Rumps will tell them how to handle the Queen’s wrath.

The baby’s name is Emma. The Queen’s curse will be a prison of time, of a strange land where they will be sent, where they will not remember. Their Child will be their only hope, but not until the child’s 28th birthday. She must be sent away and saved, and she will find them. Of course, the question comes up that if EMMA is born in whatever year AD that the kingdom is in, and then she winds up in the present day, how old is she technically. Gotta check all the fine print, I guess.

As luck would have it, all the characters from all the stories seem to have formed a huge Security Council. It is here that Prince Charming tries to build consensus on how to battle the Queen’s curse. Gepetto is assigned to build a “wardrobe” out of an enchanted tree, but the wardrobe will only save one. It is decided that Emma needs to be the one.

When the baby is born, the Queen sets about her revenge. Emma is placed in the wardrobe by Prince Charming just before the Queens guards defeat him. He lies bloodied and weak on the floor as Snow White comforts him. The Queen storms in and sees that the baby is no longer in the wardrobe and then she launches her evil curse.

Now, this scene reminds me of Jor-El sending Kal-El off in a rocketship to who knows where just before Krypton blows up, but with a bit of “The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe” thrown in. The baby Emma was sent to who knows where? However, she was sent to the same time period that the Queen sent everyone else. Co-incidence?

All of this is played out against the juxtaposition of the modern day, when a young boy has been given a book called (TAA-DAH) “Once Upon A Time”. He has also run away in the belief that something is very wrong in his hometown of STORYBROOK, MAINE. HENRY (played by Jared Gilmore) has managed to track down who he thinks is his birth mother, and that person is EMMA SWAN (Jennifer Morrison), a bail bonds person who is about to turn (wait for it) 28. It turns out that Emma had given Henry up for adoption 10 years ago, and he has figured out that she is his mother. Henry reminds me of LUCAS HAAS in the movie WITNESS, in both looks and attitude.

In addition, the question of exactly where in the current world did baby Emma land. She is said to have been found by the side of the road, but where is that road?

The problem is in convincing Emma to come to Storybrook, because Storybrook is the fate that befell the characters in his storybook. It seems that the book relates to the town because the tales are really the history of the townspeople before they came to Maine.

The Queen’s curse sent everyone to Maine, but without any memory of who they were. They simply showed up 28 years ago and started living in the same town. Oh, and they can never leave. Henry was able to escape because he is not from their stories.

Now, the complication. It seems that Henry is the adopted son of the mayor of the town, and that mayor is actually the evil Queen from the kingdom. However, there are questions about whether she remembers her own past. She has a position of power in this life, yet she seems to not be wicked as much as just happy with her power. When Emma brings Henry back, Regina (Queen/Mayor) is incensed that she is back because it was a closed adoption. This is where the closest resemblance to DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES comes through, especially the use of the apples, which has also become a trademark image of HOUSEWIVES.

The rest of the episode is made up of finding out who each fairy tale character has morphed into, including Snow White, now a teacher named Mary Margaret; Prince Charming is now a comatose “John Doe”; and Rumplestiltskin has become a shady shakedown artist named Mr. Gold.

The story is also set in motion about the coming of the savior for the town, as it is established that it is Emma’s 28th birthday. Emma is determined to simply leave, but her bail bondsperson sense is tingling, and she books a room a Grandma’s Inn for a week. Henry, realizes that his mission is successful as he looks at the frozen town hall clock which suddenly moves. Time no longer stands still.

So, I really want to like this show, and many have. However, there are many little questions and issues that I have. Many of these may be resolved in
subsequent episodes, but here they are anyway:

• These characters have been living in Maine for 28 years. Have any of them ever questioned why they don’t leave the town? Have any of them ever wondered about their own modern family history? Do they have childhood memories, or do they ignore Henry’s fairy tale book or do they lack that innocence?
• This is now 28 years later, yet all the characters haven’t aged. I know they are “stuck in time”, but seriously? The queen has actually given them immortality? Now that Emma has arrived and the clock has moved, will they now age?
• If they are stuck in time, how come Little Red Riding Hood ain’t so little anymore. She is more like EMO TEEN RED RIDING HOOD. And she conveniently winds up in Grandma’s Inn (House).
• GEPETTO still tinkers, GRUMPY is still grumpy and JIMINY CRICKET is still practicing psychology on little boys. BTW, where is Pinocchio? And where are Shrek, Puss, and Donkey ;) ? Just kidding.
• Have the townsfolk been hardwired to unknowingly assume the type of person that they were in the kingdom?
• Where did all the schoolkids come from? Are they also frozen in time?
• If there is phone service and internet access, does anyone besides Henry use it and if they do, what do they Google?
• If Henry knows of the outside world, does everyone else?
• It looks like US money that Grandma gives to Mr. Gold. Do they question where that money comes from?
• Obviously, the Mayor/Queen seems to know what is going on, since she was able to go outside of the town to adopt Henry. Is she clever enough to be able to create a real world history for herself to fool the adoption agency during the background check before the adoption?
• What kind of mayor has she been? The townspeople don’t seem to be terribly unhappy or oppressed.
• Now that time seems to be moving again, will memories return?
• There are a ton of dangers if the end of this story, the “happily ever after” is not already predetermined by the writers, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis , who also worked on the show LOST. Anything that even smells like a cheat will be hated.
• Please don’t end this like ST. ELSEWHERE, where the entire series was in the mind of an autistic boy with a snowglobe.

So, to sum up, I really want to like ONCE UPON A TIME but it will need time , not the frozen kind, to see how logically it can progress. It will also need time to make sure that it isn’t confused with NBC’s “GRIMM” which works with the same source material. When two shows come along with the same concept, one usually dies quickly. (Everyone knows 30 ROCK, but how many remember STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP?)

The show has a great visual style, but I am hoping that it continues past the pilot, when the budgets start to shrink. The show also has to find a way to become unique, to not be confused with GRIMM nor compared to LOST, and also to not feel like other shows. I’ll admit that the Maine setting put me directly in mind of the Washington state setting of TWIN PEAKS. The eccentric characters could also run that same danger.

I’ll be watching further, waiting to fall in love with it, and to view it “happily ever after”.