TV REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME
POSTED 5:48pm | 27 OCTOBER 2011
In the search to find something new and fresh for television and film audiences these days creators are seemingly looking back more than forward, into the past itself, or re-imagining old stories for modern consumers. We've had Mad Men, Pan Am, and the recently cancelled Playboy Club travel back a few decades in American history, Spartacus, Camelot, and The Borgias travel back a few centuries in human history, and even Terra Nova travel back 85 million years in planet history. We've had vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, zombies, and all manner of paranormal entities return to our screens with the Twilight films, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Teen Wolf, The Walking Dead, The Secret Circle, Fringe, and many more.
It seems the new thing may be now to re-imagine and re-interpret old fairytales and fables. Grimm debuts soon, and is, obviously, based around the stories of the Brothers Grimm but set as a modern day cop show. The other is Once Upon A Time, which takes characters from a wider pool of fairytales (including the Brothers Grimm) and throws them all in a modern setting, but as more of a traditional drama/mystery.
The premiere episode opens with Prince Charming (Josh Dallas from Thor) racing to his beloved Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin from Big Love) who lies dead/comatose from having bitten the poisonous apple, surrounded by a grieving seven dwarves. He kisses her goodbye, which magically lifts the curse, waking Snow White up, and they go and get married and live happily ever after. Except this time, before they can get to the happily ever after bit, right in the middle of the wedding, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla from Spin City, Boomtown, Swingtown) decides to change things up a little and promises to ruin everything for everyone pretty soon.
Meanwhile, in the modern day "real world", we are introduced to a 10-year old boy named Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore, or Bobby Draper from Mad Men) who has travelled by himself on a bus to the city of Boston carrying with him nothing more than a large book of fairytales, which he informs an inquisitive old woman in the seat next to him is "more than just a book". He hops a cab using a credit card that implies this kid might know more about things than he is letting on. At the same time we are introduced to the main character of Emma Swann (Jennifer Morrison from House) who works as a bail bondsman (or bondsperson, as she quips) who is pretending to be on an internet date with a fraudster she is tracking down, who after a brief chase through a busy midtown street she catches, giving us plenty of no-nonsense tough chick-schtick and biting one-liners to set up the old hot-chick-who-is-too-tough-to-have-friends-or-find-love character cliche. It's a quick-and-easy way to get a lot of character exposition out of the way, and in a show that will deal in a whole host of characters based on fairytale cliches, it comes across more as a clever way for the writers to get the character introduction out of the way whilst sticking to the universal themes of their show, rather than a lazy cop-out. In a first episode the quicker you can set-up your universe and your characters, the quicker you can get to the heart of the story, so it works.
We follow Emma Swann back to her apartment where she celebrates her birthday alone with a single cupcake with a candle on top. She closes her eyes (and makes a wish!) and blows out the candle, which brings about a knock on her door that turns out to be little Henry. It appears he's travelled to Boston just to see her, and quickly informs Emma that he is in fact her son that she gave up for adoption 10 years earlier. After a brief moment of sceptiscism she accepts the kid is telling the truth, but obviously can't deal with it right now, and Henry wants her to come back home with him, but the best she can offer is driving him back and leaving him there. Where does he live? Why, the small seaside town of Storybrooke, Maine, which should raise a few eyebrows (and does raise Emma's, at least).
On the drive to Storybrooke Emma quizzes Henry about his big book of fairytales. He tells her that all the stories in his book actually happened, which brings about more raised eyebrows, to which Henry tells her that even she is in the book. Whilst over in the land of fairytales, the pregnant Snow White and Prince Charming are worried about when the Evil Queen will strike, so they drop down to the dungeons to interrogate their prisoner, Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle from Trainspotting, Hamish Macbeth, Stargate Universe), who gives them the information they need in return for the name of their unborn child, which just happens to be... Emma!
And, bam, we have our set-up.
The rest of the episode follows the two storylines of Emma returning Henry to Storybrooke and the Evil Queen laying her curse on the land of fairytales to take away all their happy endings, and we're introduced to the hook of the whole series, in which all of the fairytale creatures are now stuck in the town of Storybrooke without any memory of their actual identities, instead having assumed the identities of regular, everyday folk. The Evil Queen is the mayor of Storybrooke and Henry's adoptive mother, Snow White is the local primary school teacher, Geppeto (character actor Tony Amendola from Stargate: SG1) is now Marco the mechanic, Rumplestiltskin is now Mr. Gold, who owns most of the town, and Prince Charming is now John Doe, lying in a coma in the local hospital. Emma is forced to stay in Storybrooke after swerving to avoid a white wolf on a rainy night as she was heading back to Boston and crashing her car, and we now have the basic foundation for the series, in which Emma wants to leave, but can't help being drawn into the lives of the quirky townsfolk who might just be fairytale characters, all the while growing closer to her son.
Producing a strong first episode is tough. Trying to find the balance between story and character, and then timing everything right to keep your audience entertained and hooked, while offering up hints as to what the future of the series might hold, without giving away too much or too little, while also trying to do things in an original or interesting way that sets it apart from all other shows - it's no surpirse why a lot of new TV shows struggle to survive. And while it's not exactly the greatest first episode I've ever seen, Once Upon A Time does tick off a whole lot of boxes in the premiere episode checklist, enough to suggest that the quality of the show won't be a reason if the show fails to find an audience.
The show is created and written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who have both worked as writers and producers on Lost, Birds of Prey, and Felicity, and it's a credit to them that they have created something that feels like it is both following a well worn formula while knowingly challenging that formula. It's a silly premise, but they have embraced it wholeheartedly, and that comes across in the strong writing and dialogue and performances from the entire cast. There is humour, there are emotional highs and lows, there is silliness, and fairytale characters, but it all has a very genuine and organic feel to it.
The episode was directed by Mark Mylod, who directed the Robin Williams vehicle The Big White and many episodes of Entourage and both the UK and US versions of Shameless, and it is very clean and natural. He has taken that light-handed approach that we get with Entourage, where great attention is paid to timing and structure, but not to the extent where it affects the natural flow of the words, story, and actors performances. He has been helped by editors David Kaldor and Henk Van Eeghen (who have both also worked extensively on Lost) who have cut it all together without making it feel like the audience is being rushed along. The direction and editing is simple and professional, with nothing flashy or distracting, and really allows the feel and look of the show to come off as naturally warm and open.
The special effects, costumes, and cinematography are all pretty basic and standard. They've used their money wisely and embraced the fairytale aspect of the show, but it really only supports the fine work of the writers, director, and actors, rather than lifting the show to any great new level of design. Some good locations are used cleverly, and are captured well, but nothing really stands out outside of the wedding scene early on. I'm guessing that this has to do with the primary focus of the remainder of the series being set in the "real world" of Storybrooke, rather than spending any time at all in the fairytale land, which was necessary for the first episode, but doesn't appear to be important outside of that.
I really enjoyed the show. It's easy to watch, and there is enough there to make me want to keep watching for a few more episodes, but what really made the difference for me was the excellent original music by Mark Isham (who has a long list of film credits to his name, among the more recent and famous of which are perhaps Crash, The Mist, The Mechanic, and A River Runs Through It, for which he was Oscar nominated). It fit the story perfectly and added a great deal of atmosphere, capturing the mystery and wonder that fills fairytales and transporting that into the modern setting. I think this is a clear case of where the right music that hits all the right notes (pun intended) actually makes a show a lot better than what it might have been with a different composer (think of Mark Snow's work on the X-Files or Bear McReary's work on the Battlestar Galactica re-boot) and highlights the importance of music and sound design and editing when it comes to drawing in and holding an audience. It's a beautiful score that does everything TV show music needs to do, and is one of the main reasons why I had a positive reaction to the show.
Overall, there is a whole lot of professionalism, love, and care on show in the first episode of Once Upon A Time, with the excellent music being the glue that holds it all together and makes it work, and I have confidence so far that the creators are aware of all the traps that a show like this can fall into and are more than ready to avoid them. It's a fresh idea that re-uses a very old idea, and has that important streak of originality which should hopefully open up a whole lot of interesting avenues in terms of story, but the only worry is whether the audience will accept the premise enough to see it survive.
Watch list: At least the first five episodes