ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME certainly gets points for originality. When other shows talk about their “mythology,” they mean a general set of rules for some overarching story structure, but this show means business. Pay attention, there’ll be a quiz: the tale by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (of Lost) begins in a fairy tale kingdom, where Snow White and Prince Charming are about to be married; the kingdom also includes such characters as Rumplestiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother, Geppetto and Pinochio, etc. Before the wedding can happen, though, the local Evil Queen storms in to announce that she’s placing a horrible curse on the kingdom… and we’re suddenly in modern day New England. Where we meet the show’s actual heroine, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a bounty hunter confronted on her birthday by Henry, the son she gave up for adoption 10 years earlier.
Emma wants no part of this, and drives Henry back to his home in Storybrooke, Maine, and his adoptive mother, who turns out to be Regina (Lana Parrilla), the town’s Mayor. Along the way, Henry tells Emma that in fact Regina is the Evil Queen of the stories, and the entire town of Storybrooke consists of fairy tale characters living under her curse, which has placed them into stultifyingly ordinary lives, completely unaware of their magical selves. So Snow White is now a schoolteacher (Ginnifer Goodwin), Rumplestiltskin is a greedy landlord (Robert Carlyle), and so on. But wait, there’s more: Emma herself is the daughter of Snow White and the Prince, sent away to the “real” world to escape the catasrophe, and destined to battle the Queen and end the curse. Emma is understandably skeptical about this, but once she meets Regina, it’s clear enough that she’s an evil something, so Emma will be hanging around in Storybrooke for Henry’s sake (and, along the way, presumably fight for the soul of the town).
Got it? Now, here’s the problem with trying to judge Once Upon A Time as a continuing series: half the pilot is set in fairy tale land, with opulent sets and special effects, but by the end of the hour, the Queen’s curse has taken effect and that kingdom no longer exists, which–I assume–means that the show itself won’t have the dual-world structure that’s enlivened Fringe, but will basically take place in the modern day town of Storybrooke. So the characters will be, along with Emma and Henry, ordinary people like the Mayor, the schoolteacher, the landlord, etc. We get very little sense of what that show will look like in the pilot, but shorn of its fantastic elements, it may not be much more than a small town soap opera with a bitchy villainess and a plucky heroine, plus some fanciful underpinnings.
Viewed as a self-contained hour of television, the Once Upon A Time pilot is interesting, but thin. Morrison and Parrilla deliver their good and bad girl personas in roles that, as written, don’t seem to be designed for any kind of psychological complexity. The very appealing Goodwin, in her modern day scenes, is blandly nice (she gets more to do while she’s still Snow White), and the only character to really make an impression is Rumplestiltskin, who’s apparently as nasty in 2011 as he was back in the day. Mark Mylod’s direction is most impressive in the fairy tale scenes; the modern day sequences that seem to be the real basis for the show are less notable.
It’s hard to discern what the intended audience is for Once Upon A Time: although it will air at 8PM and features fairy tale motifs, it’s not a kid’s show. and without the characters knowing they’re magical and doing fantastic things, it’s not going to attract geeks. Paired as it is with Desperate Housewives and Pan Am on the night, it’s probably aimed at women, but other than the fact that the antagonists are female, there’s not much to attract them (certainly it’s not on a level with Vampire Diaries or True Blood, two supernatural fantasies built on female fans). The show will be airing against Amazing Race, The Simpsons and (NBC hopes) football, and Mitch Metcalf’s projections have it mired behind them all. Without any clear constituency, Once Upon A Time seems ill-placed to find its happily ever after.