Review: Once Upon A Time 1×1

Lacking the enchantment of Enchanted

Once Upon A Time

In the US: Sundays, 8/7c, ABC
in the UK: Not yet acquired

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a clever man had the idea to make a TV show in which fairy tales were true and still happening in the real world. He made that TV show and it was called Grimm and it’ll be on later this week.

Yes, coincidentally, in the same ‘strange’ way as NBC and ABC both simultaneously deciding to do shows set in the 60s à la Mad Men (The Playboy Club and Pan Am) and CBS and ABC both simultaneously deciding to do shows about the plight of modern men (How to be a Gentleman and Last Man Standing/Man Up!/Work It), ABC has also decided to make a show in which fairy tales are true and still happening in the real world and it’s called Once Upon A Time.

How did that happen? Magic, presumably, and definitely not just networks copying each others’ ideas.

Anyway, in Once Upon A Time, Jennifer Morrison (Cameron in House) is a bondswoman. Yes, that’s plausible, isn’t it? She’s a single bondswoman who can’t get a date and has no friends. Getting more plausible by the minute, isn’t it?

But get this – it turns out that 10 years ago, she gave up a child for adoption.

Uh huh.

He finds her on the Internet and asks her to come home with him to save the town where he lives – Storybrooke. Everyone there is really a character from a fairy tale but doesn’t know it, thanks to the curse of Snow White’s wicked step-mother: the town mayor and the woman who adopted him.

But get this – again. Morrison is really the long-lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, disappeared in a magic wardrobe, but foretold to return on her 28th birthday to save everyone from the wicked step-mother’s spell.

So does this review have a happy ending? Let’s find out after the trailer.

Emma Swan’s life has been anything but a fairytale. A 28-year-old bail bondsperson, she’s been taking care of herself since she was abandoned as a baby. But when Henry—the son she gave up 10 years ago—finds her, everything changes. Henry is desperate for his mom’s help and thinks that Emma is actually the long, lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. Yes, the actual Snow White and Prince Charming. Even stranger, Henry believes that Storybrooke, the sleepy New England town he calls home, is really part of a curse cast by the Evil Queen, freezing fairytale characters in the modern world with no memory of their former selves.

Of course the seen-it-all Emma doesn’t believe a word, but when she gets to Storybrooke, she can’t help sensing that everything’s not quite what it seems. As Henry shows Emma around with the help of his fairytale book, the town, and its inhabitants like Henry’s therapist Archie Hopper and the enigmatic Mr. Gold, seem just strange enough to set off her already suspicious nature. She becomes even more concerned for Henry when she meets his adopted mother, Regina, who he suspects is none other than the Evil Queen herself!

Storybrooke is a place where magic has been forgotten—but is still powerfully close—and happily ever after seems just out of reach. In order to understand where the fairytale world’s former inhabitants came from, and what ultimately led to the Evil Queen’s wrath, you’ll need a glimpse into their previous lives. But it might just turn everything you’ve ever believed about these characters upside-down.

Meanwhile, the epic battle for the future of all worlds, modern and fairytale alike, is about to begin. For good to win, Emma will have to accept her destiny and fight like hell.

Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, two master storytellers behind Lost and Tron: Legacy, invite everyone to brace themselves for a modern fairytale with thrilling twists and hints of darkness, brimming with wonder and filled with the magic of our most beloved stories.

Is it any good?
First, let’s just look at that write-up above: “Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, two master storytellers behind Lost and Tron: Legacy“. Bit of a cheat, they being just two of the writers of Lost, not the showrunners, and Tron: Legacy essentially being Tron again but without, you guessed it, Tron. But all the same – “master storytellers”? Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Interlude over. On with the review.

So here essentially is the problem with Once Upon A Time: it’s like a huge bit of crossover fan fiction but with fairy tale characters instead of TV/film/comic characters. Once Upon A Time does its best to cover all the bases. It has Geppetto, Snow White, Pinnocchio, the seven dwarves, Prince Charming, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, the evil step mother, Jimminy Cricket, Rumplestiltskin and probably a few others I might have missed. It then sticks them in one big storybook world then rubs off the serial numbers and dumps them in our world, giving them problems and issues of their own. So Red Riding Hood is a goth girl who likes to sleep around, Rumplestiltskin is a debt collector of sorts, Snow White talks to birds but is a teacher. But not one of these characters gels or sings out to the subconscious in the way that fairy tales do. No universal truth about human nature is imparted here.

So immediately, it’s disappointment all round. But there are more disappointments just from the story itself. What the writers have done is pretty uninteresting. Okay, so getting the storybook world is almost interesting and getting the evil step-mother to curse everyone is fine, but as with Grimm, the writers of this show have bolted on a slight procedural element to the story: they couldn’t just have the real world Storybrooke being stumbled upon by Morrison or even Morrison having a relatively normal, child-free life. No, she had to be a lonely, implausible bondswoman.

Compounding this problem is the fact that there’s not much characterisation going on. Why did Geppetto make Pinnocchio? Because he wanted a son. …right? And he and his wife couldn’t. …and? That’s it.

We really only have a big checklist of characters, with just a hint of real-world characterisation to them. The show isn’t delving into them at all, except in a few cases and where we do, we immediately have issues. Jennifer Morrison’s character is dull and charmless, Prince Charming even more charmless, Morrison’s son is irritating and Snow White insipid.

Because that’s the thing about fairytale characters: they’re archetypes so don’t start with a lot of character traits. Once you start adding layers to them, they stop being universal and start becoming individuals and not necessarily ones you’re interested in, which the show can’t do, so has to avoid too much detailed characterisation. Interesting to see how they stretch that out for 20+ episodes.

Also, in terms of casting, the show has real problems. Morrison is easily out-acted by Lana Parrilla, who might be an evil stepmother, but hers is a far more interesting character as well. Couple that with the fact you have the always fantastic Robert Carlyle playing Rumplestiltskin and it’s hard not to be rooting for the side of evil when you’re watching this.

In part that’s because Snow White never steers away from whining – this isn’t the joyful character from the Disney stories, even when she’s playing with birds – and although I really try not to comment on appearances, it’s very hard to see why the mirror on the wall would claim that she is fairer than her step-mother:

Snow White

Snow White

Evil stepmother

Evil stepmother


So that’s a lot of obstacles for the show, right from the beginning. It does try a little to swash and buckle, to have a little fun with the characters and does have the occasional spark of fun dialogue. But it never really gets anywhere and never really hits any high notes. You’re better off watching Enchanted instead. Now that does everything Once Upon A Time is trying to do but does it and is really is good. Hmm, I wonder if that might have been the inspiration…


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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