When I got wind of the TV show Once Upon a Time, I was instantly intrigued because of its surface similarities to Fables. Both revolve around fairy tale characters who have been exiled from their magical realm to ours, and that’s excellent storytelling material. Obviously, a show on ABC Family and a comic book with mature themes are going to have some differences, so I didn’t expect an R-rated clone. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a kid-friendly show that everyone in my family actually wants to watch. (I’m told Grimm is much darker, but I haven’t seen it.)
So what’s the verdict? Once Upon a Time is a good-looking show, and the parts that work well are entertaining. Some of the characters, especially the villains, are great fun to watch. Though it can get a little draggy at times, there’s enough mystery and suspense to keep a viewer coming back each week. The production values exceeded my expectations, especially in the show’s flashbacks to fairy tale world.
The first episode, in which the Evil Queen casts a dark spell over the kingdom, is the best so far. Lana Parrilla is fantastic in this role, and the scene where she barges in during Snow and Charming’s wedding is one of the show’s most memorable yet. Dressed like she’s going to a drag queen ball, EQ pretty much steals the show and puts everyone on notice that they’d better enjoy themselves while they can, because it’s gonna get ugly. She eventually casts a dark spell over the Kingdom that tosses all the players into modern times and causes them to forget who they are. Ruthless? Yes, but there is a secret sadness that makes her more than a one-note witch.
Shift to present day where a bail bondsman named Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is paid a visit from Henry (Jared Gilmore), the child she gave up for adoption 10 years prior. Emma winds up in Henry’s deeply weird residence of Storybrooke, Maine, where the Evil Queen (known here as Regina) is mayor and the boy’s adoptive mother. Time never moves forward and no one there can remember who they are. Well, almost no one. Regina knows what’s up, as do Henry and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), aka snake-in-the-grass Mr. Gold. Like Parrilla, Carlyle is a top-notch baddie who does icky and quietly dangerous equally well. I also enjoyed seeing the real-world interpretations of storybook characters like Jiminy Cricket, the town therapist; Snow White, a sweet and lonely school teacher; Little Red Riding Hood, a bad-girl waitress; Cinderella, a maid down on her luck.
Henry is Emma’s field guide in Storybrooke, and their relationship is crucial to the larger story. A little bit of the precocious, chatty Henry goes a long way. I understand that he plays an important role in the unfolding events, but boy, is he grating. That’s not a knock on the young actor but the script, which has him popping up at nearly every turn. It isn’t yet clear how he figured everything out, because Regina has kept the curse tightly under wraps.
Regina isn’t happy that Henry is spending so much time with Emma, whose presence is threatening. (Her put-downs of the boy’s birth mom are cutting and coldly delivered.) Given how rattled Regina is by this turn of events, I’m baffled that she didn’t immediately dispose of Emma, Mafia-style. However, there is the potential for serious fireworks now that Emma has decided to stick around — and Regina is clearly not having it.
I won’t lie; I’d be much happier if HBO were doing a TV adaptation of Fables, which would make a hell of an adult TV series. But Once Upon a Time holds its own, and it’s nice to have a quality fantasy show that you can watch with older children. It’s — Dare I say it? — charming.