Tuned In: 'Once Upon a Time' is charming, family fare
With only a few more new shows left to roll out in the fall 2011 TV season -- including the thematically similar "Grimm" Friday night on NBC -- ABC's "Once Upon a Time" attempts to cast a spell over viewers, especially those who complain there's no good family viewing anymore.
In its pilot, "Once Upon a Time" (8 tonight, WTAE) succeeds on charm but comes up short on logic. Viewers looking for plot holes will find them. Perhaps the rules of the two universes featured in the show will make more sense in future episodes; ABC made only the pilot available for review in time for the TV Week deadline.
The story begins in fantasyland with Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) kissing Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, "Big Love") as she lies in a glass coffin surrounded by dwarves. This brings her back to life and allows the pair to plan their nuptials, which are interrupted by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), who threatens a curse that ensures "no more happy endings."
"Soon everything you love will be taken from you," the queen rages. "Out of your suffering will rise my victory."
"Once Upon a Time" does not get into why the queen is furious or how cursing others will benefit her. But her spell does have an impact, somehow transporting all the characters to present-day Storybrooke, Maine, where they have no recollection of their past lives.
Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge, "The Guardian") is no longer a computer-animated insect -- He's now the town shrink, Archie. The Evil Queen becomes Regina, the town mayor, adoptive mother to Henry (Jared Gilmore, "Mad Men"), who runs away to find his birth mother, Emma (Jennifer Morrison, "House"), on her 28th birthday.
It turns out Emma has her own connection to two prominent fairy tale characters and Henry is determined to enlist Emma in freeing those who are frozen-in-time so a final battle can begin.
That's a lot to absorb in one hour. Packing in plot and exposition -- the set-up of a show -- is a hazard of any TV pilot, but it's particularly problematic for ambitious, character-driven stories with a mythology layered on top.
"Once Upon a Time" executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz previously wrote for "Lost," which had the benefit of beginning fairly simply -- plane crashes on tropical island -- and then grew more complicated over the course of many seasons. "Once Upon a Time" begins with a tangle of stories and character relationships -- in two worlds, no less -- and then will set out to explain them (and presumably explain character motivation) by flashing back and forth between fantasyland and Storybrooke.
Although fantasyland occasionally has the cheesy CGI look of a Robert Halmi miniseries from the late 1990s (think: "The 10th Kingdom"), the writing and characterizations, even in rudimentary form in the pilot, are better than that.
Tonally, "Once Upon a Time" is trying to walk a tightrope: It needs to be sufficiently intriguing for adults but not too adult for children. The pilot generally gets that balance right, although viewers younger than 8 may be scared by the curse's destructive force as it storms through fantasyland.
As Snow White (and elementary school teacher Mary Margaret in Storybrooke), Ms. Goodwin has the complexion and cheery disposition necessary for sharing a scene with a blue bird. And as the Evil Queen, Ms. Parrilla brings a supercilious glee to her two characters.
Figuring out which character in the real world matches their fantasyland counterpart is one of the joys of the pilot, and it's not always easy: Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle, "Stargate Universe") is buried under makeup that makes it a challenge to spot him late in the episode as Storybrooke's Mr. Gold.
Only time will tell whether "Once Upon a Time" becomes a sophisticated addiction like "Lost." But credit ABC for trying something different -- albeit with familiar characters -- that families can sit down to watch together.
First Published October 23, 2011 12:00 am