ABC’s Once: Inconsistent, but Charming
I have always been a fan of fairy tales, from Disney’s animated classics to retellings by authors Gregory Maguire (Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), Robin McKinley (Beauty, Spindle’s End), and Shannon Hale (The Goose Girl). Drew Barrymore’s Ever After: A Cinderella Story is one of my all-time favorite films, and who doesn’t swoon over Westley, Buttercup’s dashing true love in The Princess Bride?
When ABC’s ambitious fairy tale series Once Upon a Time premiered in primetime last fall, I was excited to see Disney’s latest take on fairy tale characters trapped in the modern world, a concept which worked wonderfully in 2007’s Enchanted starring Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey. The pilot episode showed promise, despite some sup-par special effects and conspicuously rendered backgrounds, but as season one’s disjointed plot unfolded across two worlds (one magical, one mundane), I was often less than enchanted – and left wanting.
Once Upon a Time introduces a magical world where characters from Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, and other storytellers live fairy tale lives somewhat different than the stories claim. Snow White and Prince Charming are recently married, and Snow has just given birth to their first child, a baby girl. But their happily ever after is shattered when Snow White’s wicked stepmother, the Evil Queen Regina, puts a curse on the whole kingdom, banishing its residents – heroes and villains alike – to the isolated, perpetual town of Storybrooke in modern-day Maine.
In Storybrooke, the characters lead mundane lives without magic or memory of their true identities, and with no hope of reaching their well-deserved happy endings. Twenty-eight years later, things are finally looking up when Snow White’s adult daughter Emma comes to town after being tracked down by the son she gave up for adoption a decade earlier.
Emma was spared from the curse as an infant and transported to the “real” world where she has grown up as a jaded, friendless bounty hunter. She doesn’t believe in magic, but she is destined to break the Queen’s terrible curse with the help of her precocious son, the eccentric residents of Storybrooke, and an enchanted book of fairy tales.
SEASON ONE SPOILERS AHEAD!
Although the pilot was promising, the first season of Once has been largely uneven, hampered by inelegant writing, second-rate special effects, and too much backstory with too little plot momentum. Interesting characters like Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent (vampire Pam from True Blood!) were tossed aside in favor of tedious season regulars (Archie Hopper, Sidney Glass), while Snow White and Prince Charming’s forbidden love has become so muddled in backstory and real-world complications that it’s lost its intrigue. The lovers spend so much time apart that it’s hard to remember why they want to be together. Do the actors even have chemistry?
Storytelling problems aside, I am more annoyed than entertained by the juxtaposition of slavish devotion to Disney’s animated films (costumes, Dwarf names, G-rated family values) and a bizarre alternative fairy world where Rumpelstiltskin has inserted himself into almost every tale, including Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. But at least Rumpelstiltskin is entertaining and has genuine power in both worlds, unlike Regina, the all-bark-no-bite Mayor of Storybrooke. If I had the awesome power to crush beating hearts with my bare hands, I wouldn’t be verbally harassing the deputy sheriff and framing a kindergarten teacher for murder, I’d be turning vital organs into dust.
That’s all of the bad. Now, onto the good.
EMMA SWAN: “This is it. This is the real world.”
JEFFERSON: “A real world. How arrogant are you to think that yours is the only one? There are infinite more; you have to open your mind. They touch one another, pressing up in a long line of lands, each just as real as the last. All have their own rules. Some have magic, some don’t. And some need magic. Like this one.”
If you’ve seen the pilot, but you’re on the fence about watching the rest of the season, I’d recommend skipping ahead to episode 7, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”, which was the first episode I connected with on an emotional level. There was actual character development! And real stakes! The rest of the season is a mixed bag, but the best episodes (“Skin Deep”, “Red-Handed”, “Hat Trick”) are intriguing enough to tolerate misfires like “Dreamy”, which even the lovely and talented Amy Acker failed to save.
The Best of Once Upon a Time: Season One (SPOILERS!)
I saw the “twist” of episode 2 “The Thing You Love Most” coming a mile away, but when Regina sacrifices her father, it’s the first affirmation that Once Upon a Time will go deeper into the dark side of fairy tales than any of Disney’s animated films ever have. Does this mean the Little Mermaid will turn into sea foam instead of marrying the Prince she loves? I sure hope so! I think this revelation came too soon, before the relationship between Regina and her father had been established with enough emotional depth for the sacrifice to pack a real punch.
In episode 7, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”, Mayor Regina finally puts the “evil” back into “Evil Queen” when she visits her secret lair filled with beating hearts and crushes the heart of Sheriff Graham – in her fist! The unlucky-in-love Sheriff dies of a heart attack just when things were starting to get steamy with Emma. What a waste.
When I saw the preview for “Skin Deep” (episode 12), I was exacerbated by the revelation that Rumpelstiltskin was going to story-bomb YET ANOTHER fairy tale, assuming the role of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. I was pleasantly surprised when the episode was genuinely romantic, with great acting by Robert Carlyle and Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin. Their love story ended badly, but a teaser shot of the Storybrooke-Beauty locked away in an insane asylum made me excited for Emilie’s return (other than the dreadful “Dreamy”).
Hearing Snow White and Red Riding Hood call each other by their first names (“Hey Snow”/”What’s happen’n, Red?”) is good for a laugh, but that’s the only thing funny about episode 15, “Red-Handed”. We finally get to know diner waitress Ruby as more than just a pair of legs, and Red Riding Hood’s origin story is a nice twist on the fairy tale. After Red Riding Hood transforms into a wolf (how meta!), she eats her boyfriend – didn’t see that coming! I hope that Ruby reconnects with her wild side soon, especially since her stint working in the sheriff’s office was far too brief, cut short by a gruesome discovery.
Emma may claim to know when someone’s lying, but she’s a terrible judge of character in “Hat Trick” (episode 17). While looking for the escaped Mary Margaret, Emma is kidnapped by a psychopath named Jefferson who claims to be the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Jefferson tells Emma that there are infinite “real” worlds that are all connected (aka: parallel dimensions – see quote above) and that his other-self used a magical hat to travel between worlds until he was tricked by the Evil Queen and imprisoned in a terrifying Wonderland. This revelation opened up huge possibilities for future episodes: Who else has the power to travel between worlds? How many other worlds will we see? Just who is the veiled Queen of Hearts? – my guess is that she’s Snow White’s evil alter ego.
Last week’s episode 18, “The Stable Boy”, finally revealed the catalyst for Regina’s intense hatred of Snow White while Mary Margaret languished in prison, freeing the kindergarteners of Storybrooke to establish their own primitive, cannibalistic society (I wish). While I can sympathize with Regina being terrorized by her own mother (irony, much?), I didn’t buy Lana Parrilla as an innocent young woman in love. The actress’s features are too hard and she is, frankly, too old to be believed. I would have preferred if they had cast a different actress for Young Regina, especially since the Young Snow White (Bailee Madison) was so fantastic.