Entertainment Magazine

Review #3086: Once Upon a Time 1.1: “Pilot”

Posted on the 25 October 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: Edmund B.

In recent times, we have seen fairy tales rewritten straight, but with a modern sensibility, in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride”, Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust”, or, even, the various “Shreks”. The crime milieu of private eyes and cops has been twisted to include supernatural beings hiding in plain sight in “Lost Girl”, or the upcoming “Grimm”. Fairy tale characters have tumbled head-long into the modern world in Disney’s “Enchanted”. “Once Upon A Time” is a different take on adapting fairy tales for modern times, offering a kind of “Truman Show” melded with Steven King. Except, in this town, almost everyone’s Truman.

Review #3086: Once Upon a Time 1.1: “Pilot”

Everyone, that is, except intrepid outsider Emma Swan, and her precocious progeny, Henry Mills. We meet Emma in Boston, plying her lonely trade as a bail bondsperson. She’s good enough to work in heels, knowing she’s already cut off her target’s escape. And she goes home to reveal it really is her birthday, and she really is spending it alone. Cue Henry’s knock on the door, rocking her world with the news he’s the son she gave up ten years ago.

Early on, several references made me wonder if they’d landed on ABC, only after a failed pitch to Syfy. Emma chases Warren Christie (from “Alphas”, minus his hyperkinetics), claims to know when people are lying (“Warehouse 13″), and gets dragged off to a outwardly innocent, yet mysterious, small town in Maine (“Haven”). Luckily, the comparisons end there, since I doubt the Syfy-verse could have stretched far enough to include this concept. And I know the special effects budget would have broken them.

Henry has brought along a book of fairy tales, only this one tells the real story of what happened in the Enchanted Forest. After Prince Charming rescued Snow White, it was not happily ever after. The Evil Queen unleashed a curse that stripped the land of its enchantment. Its residents were hurled into a life as mere mortals in Storybrooke, Maine, utterly unaware of their previous existence.

The tale is told in elaborate flashbacks, which was my biggest reservation going into the pilot. The trailers showed a gaudy, over-the-top look to the fairy tale world. For this concept to work, that world has to be played absolutely straight, with characters that are natural and believable,. Thankfully, the creators understand this, and deliver exactly that. The visuals are stunning, but the Prince, Snow White and their comrades face the Queen’s threat acting like real people, not one-dimensional archetypes.

Robert Carlyle does a deliciously loony, oily turn as the devious, imprisoned Rumplestiltskin. He’ll tell the couple the key to lifting the curse, in exchange for their unborn child’s name. If they get the child to safety, she will return on her 28th birthday to free them all. And the child’s name? Emma, of course. Any guesses on which birthday she “celebrated” at the top of the show?

In addition to Mr. Carlyle, the cast is stellar, led by Jennifer Morrison as Emma and Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White. Both are getting a chance to move beyond their roles playing second fiddle to House and all of the other Hendricksons, respectively. I always enjoyed their work there, and look forward to seeing what they make of this opportunity.

Jared Gilmore is appropriately cute and annoying as young Henry. Presumably, he is genetically predisposed to see what others in town cannot. That would explain his adoption by the only other person who seems to know, the Evil Queen, who, in this world, has become the Mayor of Storybrooke. Lana Parilla plays her with great panache, and even hints of nuance. She promises to be a very satisfying villain.

This pilot was all about setting the stage. With Emma staying, and the day-to-day life of the town and the trapped characters coming to the fore, we will see how successful the show remains at melding the two worlds. I worry that the concept is better suited to a mini-series than a continuing drama. Once Emma succeeds, where do they go? However, given Horowitz and Kitsis’ experience on “Lost”, that show just about getting rescued from a plane crash, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. They certainly know all about using one world to inform the other.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 3/4

Final Rating: 9/10

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