Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Once Upon a Time

The show: Once Upon a Time, Sundays on ABC

The premise in ten words or less? Woman moves to town populated by fairy tale characters.

Any good? The one monumentally appealing thing Once Upon a Time has going for it is that, perhaps on the most fundamental level of any new show this fall, I've never seen this story on television before. Even my two favorite new shows this season, Homeland and Boss, while superbly scripted and performed, are on some level putting new spins on old anti-terrorism and political stories, respectively. Once Upon a Time, which I was only able to very loosely paraphrase the plot of in the allotted ten words above, isn't putting a new spin on anything. It's just new.

While the story does indeed involve Jennifer Morrison's protagonist Emma Swan rolling into the town of Storybrooke, Maine after the son Henry she gave up for adoption ten years earlier tracks her down and she's forced to drive him home, and the town is indeed populated by fairy tale characters, it's a little more complicated than all that.

Storybrooke's residents, who include the Evil Queen, Snow White, Jiminy Cricket (in human form), Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, the Seven Dwarfs, and many more, have not only been transplanted from their fairy tale origins but also seem to have lost all memories prior to said transplant and are now living as contemporary American people who share characteristics of who they used to be, perhaps most notably the Evil Queen as the town's somewhat dictatorial mayor, Henry's adopted mother, and, before long, Emma's archnemesis.

The show was created and is run by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who worked on Lost for all six seasons, so it should come as no shock that this information – when it isn't delivered via exposition from young Henry, one of the town's only residents who isn't from a fairy tale and perhaps the only one who knows the truth – is doled out via flashbacks which take us from Maine to a high fantasy fairy tale land of castles and princes and witches and swords and magic and whatnot, where the Evil Queen plots revenge on Snow White for some unknown slight. Normally I'd object to Kitsis and Horowitz plumbing Lost's leftovers so soon, but, at least from the point of view of a fantasy nerd, these flashbacks are a fairly enjoyable way to shake things up.

Now, when it comes to television, I'm a sucker for the new and the original, and I can at least initially overlook at lot of flaws if they're in service of something that has nothing to do with cops, doctors, or lawyers. So I give this show a thumbs up for its unorthodox narrative, but beyond that there's undeniably a lot that's really messy about it. When I said there was one monumentally appealing thing about Once Upon a Time, I meant there was one monumentally appealing thing, and a number of other decent or flawed things I hope improve.

On the plot level, as of two episodes in at least, the Storybrooke scenes feel kind of directionless and inconsequential, and the town's residents' reactions to Emma just chilling in the town for a little bit and getting to know her son feel unconvincingly fascinated or unconvincingly hostile. I guess that's the danger of serialized shows – procedurals may be boring and predictable, but at least you know what the plot is. In the Storybrooke part of this show, which is about three-quarters to two-thirds of both episodes I watched, I'm not quite sure what the heroes or villains want, why they're up against each other, or where any of this is going.

Now, in the fairy tale scenes, the Evil Queen goes apeshit and blasts plenty of people with lethal black magic. If she gets her powers back in the real world and starts doing so there, things could get interesting. As of now, the bulk of each episode feels like it's biding time.

On the acting level, the biggest blemish is without a doubt Jared S. Gilmore as Henry, giving the exact kind of overly precocious, overly cute, not remotely convincing performance you usually expect from child actors (and that the show Gilmore is a transplant from, Mad Men, is actually one of the best-known avoiders of via Kiernan Shipka's Sally Draper). Normally this isn't a big deal, since little kid characters tend to be stuck somewhere in the background, but in this case he has maybe the most screentime of anyone save Emma and the Queen, and it grates.

I also haven't been extremely engaged by Jennifer Morrison as Emma (perhaps because she doesn't have that much to do), but thankfully, outside of those two, I like most of the cast. Ginnifer Goodwin is basically the living embodiment of "likable," which shines through in her Snow White. Former Bond villain Robert Carlyle cheeses it up admirably as Rumpelstiltskin and Lana Parrilla tears into the Evil Queen / the mayor with a relish that I have to admit makes me kind of root for her over the show's nominal hero. Not to mention Giancarlo Esposito – goddamn Gustavo Fring himself! – as the Evil Queen's Magic Mirror and, in the real world, reporter for The Daily Mirror newspaper. I hear he also makes great fried chicken.

Ultimately, whether or not I end up liking Once Upon a Time and continuing with it into 2012 and beyond comes down to where it's going. If the real world scenes (which I assume will come to gradually take over the show, as a network TV budget can't nurse extended high fantasy sequences forever) turn into a bloodless soap opera with Emma and the Queen trying to one-up each other in Desperate Housewives fashion (as they do in the second episode), then I'll be done. If Storybrooke gets more dangerous, magical, and action-packed, I might well be in. We'll see.

Will I watch again? I always like to see a fantasy series on television, so I'm gonna stick this one out for a little while, see where it takes us. And if it takes us into a glowing cave with a cork stopping up a pool of magic I will be extremely upset.

Premise: A-

Execution: B-

Performances: B-

Potential: B+


No comments: