Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Blending fairy tales and real life has not been done well since Hallmark dominated television with The 10th Kingdom miniseries, but with a little time and patience, Once Upon a Time could become something magical.
There are bounty hunters… and there are bounty hunters. Emma (Jennifer Morrison) is of the latter variety, a no-holds-barred tough girl with a lot of attitude and very little patience. Abandoned by the side of the road as a child and having been raised in the foster system, she carries a lot of anger toward her parents – and doesn’t have much time for kids. So when one turns up on her doorstep claiming to be the son she gave away for adaption, she is somewhat less than pleased. Turns out that Henry (Jared Gilmore) is from a charming little town in northern Maine called Storybrook, and he has a whopper of a story to tell her – one about evil queens, diabolical revenge plots, and a curse that has separated storybook characters and thrown them into the modern world, with no memory of where they came from. Of course, what Emma doesn’t know is that the story is completely true…
Many years ago, in fairy tale land, the evil stepmother (Lana Parilla) of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) vowed vengeance on the happy couple, but it did not come to pass until the eve in which the queen was to give birth. Her courageous Prince (Josh Dallas) made a great sacrifice to save their daughter, and with the assistance of a magic has sent Emma outside the curse, knowing that she is the only one who can break it. The only person in modern-and-storybook land to know the identity of the baby is the nefarious Rumplestilstkin (Robert Carlyle), but it may or may not do him much good…
This series has some good episodes and some bad, but it is always entertaining. Characters from fairy tales appear and interact with one another, often with clever winks toward the Disney adaptations. It has a great cast and clever twists and turns. Their take on “Beauty and the Beast” is particularly memorable (and sad). By the end, we’ve encountered poisoned apples, big bad wolves, and dragons. In many ways, it unfolds like a really great book… which is a boon to the writing, but at times a determent to their on-screen limitations. The fairy tale land segments range from touching to downright cheesy, which means there are some cringe-worthy moments and scenes of severe over-acting in addition to beautiful costumes and a lovely musical score.
Even though I enjoyed the back and forth interaction between the fairy tale world and the modern world, at times the latter suffers… for one thing, its characters are often not as lovable in “our time” as “their time,” and that makes it difficult to approve of, or even like certain of their choices – such as the decision between two of them to conduct an affair in “our time.” Whether or not his marriage is real in our timeline, everyone thinks it is… and I have a hard time rooting for adulterers, no matter how charming their fairy tale counterparts. But the manipulation of certain facts and fairy tales is marvelous… there is a twist to the story of Red Riding Hood, our introduction to Pinocchio is different than you might think, and by the end of the season we have resolved a major plot point but opened up another.
For a modern series, the content is less than we might expect. Snow White and Prince Charming carry on an affair behind his wife’s back (we are uncertain if it goes beyond kissing); the Queen orders that a man be taken to her bedchamber (several earlier scenes show them in an intimate setting); there are other mild innuendos, as well as conversations revolving around illegitimate children. Violence includes car accidents, defeating dragons, and so forth. Magic runs beneath everything in fairy tale land, from poisoned apples and ancient curses to form-shifters and spinning straw into gold. There are occasional profanities.
At times, I found its absurdities too much to bear, but it has enough heart to overcome its faults.