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'Once Upon a Time,' ABC Had a Charming Idea for a New TV Series
October 22, 2011  | By David Bianculli

Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you -- and if you believe, really believe, then maybe ABC's new Once Upon a Time series will come true, too. After previewing two episodes, I'm not sure yet whether this new Sunday series, premiering this weekend at 8 p.m. ET, has the vision to go the distance. But my, this new mix of enchanted fantasy land and small-town soap opera starts out with a tantalizingly original premise, and certainly shows promise...


It begins in familiar fairy tale surroundings, with a charming prince (Josh Dallas) locating Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, right), who's imprisoned in the woods in a glass coffin, in a deep-sleep state -- until, that is, he raises the lid, kisses her, and wakes her up. Jump cut to a royal wedding, which is crashed by a former Queen, now an Evil Witch (Lara Parilla), who vows to destroy everyone's hopes and dreams.

And she does: by erasing and altering everyone's memories, and banishing them to a small town, in "our" real world (or our "real" world; put the quotation marks wherever you're most comfortable), called Storybrook. In this place, Prince Charming is a hospitalized John Doe coma victim, Snow White is a schoolteacher named Mary Margaret Blanchard, and the Evil Witch is the town mayor -- one of only two people, apparently, with memories of the fairy-tale alternate world.

The other person is Henry (Jared Gilmore), a young boy who, in Storybrook, is the mayor's adopted son -- but who suspects the whole town is enchanted and full of memory-wiped fairy tale characters. He carries around a giant fairy-tale book as evidence, and slips away from town to find a bail bondswoman named Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), whom he insists has ties to the world of fables, fairies and witches -- and to himself.

Only she, he insists, can break the witch's spell, and rescue the fairy-tale characters from, as Once Upon a Time says in its introductory preface, "a place where all their happy endings were stolen."

Exploring beloved stories from childhood, and putting a modern twist on them, is a powerful creative concept. Julia Roberts is playing the Evil Queen in one of two upcoming Snow White movies. In Broadway musicals, Into the Woods did it brilliantly, and Wicked very successfully. A 2000 NBC miniseries, The 10th Kingdom, explored a similar idea to that of Once Upon a Time, by imagining a portal between our real world and a fantasy kingdom on the same site. (In those barely pre-9/11 times, the Twin Towers morphed into towering spires of a grand castle.)

Once Upon a Time might ultimately have ended up better suited to a closed-ended miniseries form as well. It's impossible to know, at this point, whether the writers can find a way to maintain the conflict over an entire season, much less several seasons. But since series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis both came from the production staff of ABC's Lost, and consulting producer Jane Espenson honed her craft on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, let's presume they're more equipped than most to handle that particular challenge.


Plus, they have an invaluable advantage that no show from any other network can match. By being an ABC network show -- and, more to the point, an ABC Studios in-house production -- Once Upon a Time is able to draw, with blessings rather than threat of lawsuits, from the deep roster of characters, plots and images from the Disney canon. Disney owns ABC, ABC owns Once Upon a Time.

So in this version, for example, the seven dwarfs can sport the names bestowed upon them in the classic Disney animated film (in the original tale, there was no Sneezy or Grumpy, just a septet of unnamed but loyal little men). A tiny fairy can evoke Tinker Bell. Parilla's Wicked Witch (right), in all her scary finery, can look not only magnificent, but Maleficent.

And the other secret weapon in Once Upon a Time is its cast. Jennifer Morrison, as the central heroine drawn quite literally into this fairy-tale story, came from House. Ginnifer Goodwin, as Snow White, previously charmed viewers as the youngest wife on Big Love. And Lana Parilla, though nothing in her past has been as showy or demanding as this role, inhabits it wickedly well. No matter how Charming the Prince, it's the women who drive this show -- and who carry it.


Once Upon a Time, at least the two episodes available for preview, look great, do justice to a complex premise, are fully appropriate for family viewing, and have enough clever little touches to instill confidence that there are some smart, playful people in charge.

Maybe it's not a big deal that the Troll Bridge in the fairy-tale world translates to a "toll bridge" in Storybrook -- but as small touches go, it's a really nice one.




J.R. said:

This concept seems might similar to the short lived 80s sitcom "The Charmings."

Comment posted on October 22, 2011 11:20 AM

Neil said:

Enchanted meets Pushing Daisies?

Lee Pace, Kristin Chenoweth and Amy Adams were unavailable?

Comment posted on October 22, 2011 4:12 PM

Sean Dougherty said:

This is the least original idea to hit TV in a while. It's a direct rip-off of the great comic book series currently running, Fables. Disney obviously thought the concept was loose enough that they could make their own version without licensing the original (which is owned by its creator but published by Time Warner).

I watched the show and they are VERY similar in concept and execution. An FBI search of the writer's home would certainly find several Fables graphic novels.

Comment posted on October 24, 2011 1:39 PM

Stacey said:

This show is wonderful another ABC hit! BUT unfortunately ABC has a very bad habit of canceling such great shows... remember Pushing Daisies and Eli Stone? These too were enchanting and imaginative out of the ordinary clean enjoyable shows but for some reason ABC seems to cnacel the likes of these shows. I hope this one makes it I really enjoy the story and can't wait to see what happens next.

[Ratings for the premiere were so good, I'm pleased to report, I expect this one to be around for a while. - DB]

Comment posted on October 25, 2011 8:25 PM
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