ReviewsTelevision & Film

ONCE UPON A TIME Is Somewhat Charming

BANNER_Opinions2013Well, it’s not “The 10th Kingdom”. And that’s a good thing.

For all the comparisons that could be made to the 2000 NBC miniseries, it’s not the same story. It’s actually a rather nice setup into a new world inhabited by familiar characters – with a twist.

Jennifer Morrison (Star Trek, “House, M.D.”) stars as Emma Swan, a Boston bail bonds “person” who has the gift of knowing when anyone lies to her. On her 28th birthday, she lights a single candle on a sad little cupcake in her empty apartment. And the doorbell rings.

It’s a boy with a book. The boy’s name is Henry (Jared Mills), and he says he’s the kid she gave up for adoption ten years ago. And of course, it’s at this point where the whole thing could go off the rails if this kid turns into Macauly Culkin – but he doesn’t. He actually holds his own in scenes with Morrison, and doesn’t overplay it. He’s just a kid on a mission, and when it’s played that way, it works. At no point did I want to push this kid through a window.

So, Emma takes Henry back to Storybrooke, and on the way he tells her that everyone in the town is actually a fairy tale character. Only they don’t know it because they were cursed by the Evil Queen (no, not that one… the other one… yeah, that one), who is now masquerading as the mayor … and his adoptive mother. Yikes. And Henry is of a mind that Emma is Snow White’s daughter, the prophesied saviour of everyone in Storybrooke.

[This Chosen One is a lot prettier than that other Chosen One.. yeah, that one.]

That’s the basic gist of the whole thing right there. Told in one segment between commercial breaks. Which actually works, because this is just the setup episode to get all the pieces on the board, as it were. Most pilots face the same challenge: introducing a slew of characters (and let’s face it, everything’s an ensemble show anymore…) while at the same time, maintain audience interest long enough to get them back for a second episode. It’s almost like superhero movies – you have to tell the origin first (and sometimes more than once… I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder.) before you can actually tell the story you really want to tell.

“Once Upon a Time” has the advantage of incorporating characters with whom almost everyone has at least a passing familiarity. Who hasn’t heard of Snow White and Prince Charming? Red Riding Hood and Grandma? Gepetto and Pinocchio? The Blue Fairy? Jiminy Cricket?

So, it’s not about the premise of the show. It’s about the delivery. And that’s where this show works. It’s also where the show could go sliding off into the ditch, if the writers get too clever by half.

We’ve basically got two stories going here: the “before” flashbacks that build in the back-story up until the point where the Evil Queen’s curse took hold, and the “after” modern tale where Emma, the 28-year-old Chosen One, comes back to rescue everyone from the dreaded Storybrooke, Maine (really? Maine? Should we blame Stephen King for this?) I like how the two stories blended almost seamlessly, as one scene provided a springboard for the next. We get just enough of the history to know what’s going on, who’s who, and what’s at stake.

I also like the little bits – Mayor Regina and her proclivities toward having apples around the house, Jiminy Cricket’s human form Archie having an umbrella and Tom Baker scarf, and Grumpy spending time in a jail cell. Things like that give this show flavor.  And Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin is delightfully over-the-top, while his Mr. Gold is just as intensely understated. It’s a good contrast, and it hints at a dangerous energy brewing just below the surface. His reaction to hearing Emma’s name makes it clear that he knows more about what’s going on than the others.

Now, the challenge is maintaining that balance while moving the story forward to its inevitable conclusion. Let’s face it. We know the Evil Queen will lose, because it’s a fairy tale. Right?


[Official Show Site at ABC]


Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

3 thoughts on “ONCE UPON A TIME Is Somewhat Charming

  • I thought they made some interesting choices. Snow White and Prince Charming are not quite as perfect looking as you might imagine them. Charming has a scar on his chin, for example. Which makes them more real to me. Also, I noticed that Snow says the the Queen poisoned an apple because she thought Snow was more beautiful not that she was more beautiful. See what I am saying? Snow is not claiming that she is more beautiful, it’s the Queen’s perception of that.

    • Charming is going to get more back story to explain why he’s called Charming. I get the impression that’s not his “real” name in this story continuity. And you’re right about the choices they’ve made. I think the subtle shadings to the characters are going to be brought out more as the series goes on. The trick is going to be figuring out how to sustain this past a single season.

  • Perhaps it’s my time as a Scripty but I noticed things like the gun the “Sherif” had. I think he would be the hunts man in the story world. The red apples on the coffee table in the Mayor’s office. The Mayor checking herself in the mirror. I like that there was some thought into all of those details.


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