Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Review: ONCE UPON A TIME, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Tuesday, 25 October 2011
I hate fairy tales in modern US settings. It's bad enough with American accents being inappropriate to the mediaeval trappings of the art form (something the influence of Disney has admittedly made easier to tolerate), but it's rare for a American live-action modernisation of fairy tales to avoid schmaltz. There's something intrinsically European about stories like Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio. The characters just don't fit comfortably when transposed to present-day America. For this and other reasons, Once Upon A Time didn't work for me, particularly as the whole concept feels like it'll become tortuous very quickly.

Created by Adam Horowitz and Adam Kitsis, writers who cut their teeth on Lost and provided what passed for Tron Legacy's screenplay, Once Upon A Time is a Syfy miniseries like Tin Man that's somehow found its way onto network television as a continuing drama. The premise is fairly simple, yet explained in a stuttering manner, where flashbacks are employed to give an illusion of depth that really isn't there. It takes a whole hour to setup what could have been told in a ten-minute teaser: the fictional citizens of the Enchanted Forest are cursed by an Evil Queen (Lana Parilla) to have "no more happy endings", which means they're all transported to the Real World town of Storybrooke with retrograde amnesia.

Luckily, newlyweds Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Joshua Dallas) were able to smuggle their newborn daughter to safety before the curse struck, and baby Emma grew up in the Real World to become a no-nonsense bounty hunter (Jennifer Morrison). Not only that, but adult Emma gave her own son Henry (Jared Gilmore) up for adoption a decade earlier and, wouldn't you know it, Henry was adopted by none other than the Evil Queen herself, now the mayor of Storybrooke. And only Henry realizes his hometown's populated by living versions of fairy tale characters like Rumpelstiltskin (a hammy Robert Carlyle), Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), and Gepetto (Tony Amendola).

It all sounds quite fun when you write it down like that, but this pilot didn't have natural charm or any sense of magic about it. The production design and special effects used to bring the Enchanted Forest to life were largely disappointing and occasionally looked very cheap, which you don't expect from a primetime network pilot. It's also hard to see exactly where the show can really go, considering how the "villain" of the piece isn't even aware she's the Evil Queen. Who is Emma supposed to defeat? Can Once Upon A Time seriously last 100 episodes with this concept to explore? It already feels like the gimmick's been explored, and I don't see where the fun's coming from if the likes of Snow White and various Dwarfs don't know who or what they are. A lot of the humour in Enchanted (which concerned an animated princess becoming human in modern-day New York) came about because she was always aware of who she was, and the movie had fun with the very idea of an idyllic Disney-style heroine coping in a cynical urban environment. In Once Upon A Time, the residents of Storybrooke aren't fish-out-of-water, they're just oblivious to their own back-stories—which will apparently be explored, Lost-style, by showing us how these people's past lives in the Enchanted Forest shape their Real World decision-making.

Maybe Once Upon A Time just needs a few more weeks to properly layout what its grander ambitions are, and how the writers will possibly create weekly stories from a concept that (like so many TV shows these days) feels like a better fit for a family movie or cable miniseries. I didn't dislike any of the cast to any notable extent, I just had a tough time caring about anything that was happening, and it wasn't actually very enjoyable or funny. How can you make a TV show about fairy tale characters existing in reality and make it so dry? Whenever it tried to be fun in the fictional realm, it just felt cheap and camp. I don't have much faith this show's going to lead to five years of brilliant television. I'll be impressed if it can last one season without hitting a narrative brick wall, actually.


  • This show has a lot in common with the graphic novel Fables, about fictional characters living in a New York suburb called Fabletown. The creators say they're aware of the book, but didn't steal from it, although ABC had been planning to make Fables for awhile now. Claims of plagiarism are always grey areas (as many people can have the same basic idea and it's often more about how they're executed), but it does feel like ABC masterminded Once Upon A Time as a cheaper alternative to making Fables.
  • There are some fun allusions to Lost throughout this pilot: the Queen's curse taking the shape of a "smoke monster", a classic example of an "eye opening" close-shot, the mayor's address being "108", the town's clock being stuck at "8:15", and a Geronimo Jackson bumper sticker. That will all mean nothing to you, unless you watched Lost.
written by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz / directed by Mark Mylod / 23 October 2011 / ABC