The television gods have been particularly kind to me this year, with the release of Once Upon a Time–ABC’s surprise hit fairy tale drama. The last time I have been this excited about a new series that seemed to have been forged in order to precisely target my exact interests was two years ago, during the first season of Glee, back when we were all young and dewey-eyed and the idea of a show delivering a full primetime musical to our screens every week was so fresh and innovative that it was easy to forgive the chinks in the facade. Looking back on it now, though, that first season of Glee was marred by continuity flaws and a wildly uneven tone, whereas Once Upon a Time is a work of consistent beauty and well-honed invention on every level, as well as of consummate writerly craft. It has been a while since we’ve been gifted with a television fairy tale, at least since Pushing Daisies, and if Once Upon a Time doesn’t yet display quite the boundless, breathtaking awe of Bryan Fuller’s masterpiece, it certainly already ranks up there with television’s great fantasy series. It is also probably unfair to compare the two. There is likely no show that will ever dazzle me as much as Pushing Daisies, and yet Once Upon a Time more than holds its own in the enchantment department.
The concept of fairy tale characters being banished from their universe and coming to inhabit our modern-day world is not completely new–Bill Willingham’s fantastic comic book, Fables, and Disney’s sparkling Enchanted are but two examples–but what distinguishes Once Upon a Time in particular is the issue of memory, for, you see, immediately after Snow White and her Prince Charming get their Happily Ever After, the Evil Queen plots her revenge upon the two lovebirds and, by extension, all fairy tale characters who have received the sort of Happy Ending she failed to grasp for herself, by casting a powerful spell that robs the entirety of the Fairy Tale World of their Happy Endings, their land, and their very identities. Now, characters like Snow White, Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood, her Granny, Cinderella, Geppetto, Jiminy Cricket, Rumpelstiltskin, and so on and so forth inhabit a sleepy, idyllic town called Storybrooke, Maine, all of them living out unsatisfying existences with magically falsified memories and identities, with no clue as to who they really are. The spell ensures that none of them notice that time hasn’t passed for them in over twenty years, that none ask any questions, and that none of them leave.
Except before the enchantment took hold, Snow White and Prince Charming sent their newborn daughter, Emma, away through a magical wardrobe, due to a prophecy that one day, she would be the one to save them. At the start of the pilot, it is 28 years later, and Emma, who is now an emotionally distant bail bondsman and bounty hunter, is approached on her birthday night by a ten-year-old boy from Storybrooke named Henry who claims to be the son she put up for adoption ten years ago. Thanks to a book of stories given to him by his English teacher, Mary Margaret Blanchard (who, in her own world, was known as Snow White), he knows the truth about his town and has come to enlist Emma’s help to defeat the evil curse that has kept everyone there from regaining their Happily Ever Afters–the major problem being that his adopted mother, Regina Mills, is also the Evil Queen who sent them all there in the first place.
And the story takes off from that point. Created and co-executive-produced by Lost writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis (and later joined by Buffy writer extraordinaire Jane Espenson), Once Upon a Time has many structural and narrative similarities with that show. Both shows are about people trapped in some sort of supernatural prison, though the characters on Once don’t realize it. Each episode of both shows is divided between two parallel plots, one set in the present day and the other revealing a piece of each character’s back story, which brings out thematic links, contrasts, and ironies between what we know of the character today and what he or she was like back then.
Once Upon a Time adds yet another layer to this device, however, because not only are we comparing the “real-world” characters to their fairy tale counterparts, but we are also mentally contrasting these fairy tale characters’ histories with the versions that we grew up with. Some might refer to Once‘s twists on the traditional stories as “fractured fairy tales,” and yet that doesn’t seem quite right. Once‘s spins on each character are surprising, yes, but in retrospect, also feel inevitable, as if the writers are bringing out aspects of the stories that should have been there all along, structurally strengthening them in the process. The most recent two episodes, which revealed Jiminy Cricket and Prince Charming’s back stories, for example, have been particularly revelatory, playing on our expectations of the tales, teasing us with various threads that we remember from our youth, and then going in for the proverbial kill, providing us with much more fascinating characters than we ever could have expected from the material. In essence, Once is turning archetypes into flesh and blood people.
In the process, Once is also creating a complex, new fairy tale mythology. Reminiscent to Lost, as various threads of the different characters’ stories are filled in for us bit by bit, a large, overlapping tapestry is gradually being assembled before our eyes, the significance of characters’ various actions and events being drawn into deeper relief by the further knowledge we gain from each revelation. For example, back in the third episode, “Snow Falls,” which was told from Snow’s perspective, Prince Charming was incredibly worried about the fate of a particular ring. Only in the sixth episode this week did we discover the exact reason, which makes the events of the third episode even more moving in retrospect. As with Lost, however, the show doesn’t spoon-feed us these answers. We are left to make those connections on our own.
Once Upon a Time, though, is already a much more controlled show than Lost, from a writing perspective. As brilliant as that show could be, it often got lost for long periods of time in tangents that never paid off, which was in large part due to its insistence on piling bizarre mystery on top of bizarre mystery until no explanation could ever satisfactorily explain them all (if we were even able to remember them all by the end). Once, however, seems to have been designed with a far more structured series bible and timeline. Each revelation snaps into place like pieces of a puzzle (or like feet into glass slippers), and while we are left with questions at the end of each installment, they are nearly all questions of character motivation and action–such as why does the Queen hate Snow White so much (what is the alluded-to loss that Snow made her suffer)? how does the Prince come to break off his earlier engagement, given what we learned of its origins?–all of which feel attainable, and in the short term. The show also tantalizes us with questions of the present day, such as does Regina know who she is or are her actions due to the spell protecting itself, subliminally motivating her to maintain the status quo? Does the increasingly nefarious Rumpelstiltskin know? How is Emma supposed to break the spell? Does Regina love Henry? In short, for a show of such imaginative scope, it always remains centered on humanity, emotion, and simple truth. In keeping with that, Emma’s burgeoning relationship with the son she gave away remains one of the series’ most profoundly moving elements.
The show is also graced with a fantastic cast, all of whom bring depth and wonder to their roles. This is particularly personified by the luminous Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White/Mary Margaret, Josh Dallas as her soulful Prince/David Nolan, and the young Jared Gilmore, who makes Henry precocious but never overly precious. Meanwhile, Lana Parilla is an epically bitchy Queen/Mayor and seems to relish the role with nasty aplomb, Robert Carlyle is phenomenally creepy as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold, Raphael Sbarge is kind and wounded as Jiminy Criket/Archie Hopper, Jamie Dornan is seemingly sweet yet mysterious as the Sheriff, and Jennifer Morrison is absolutely wonderful and utterly convincing as Emma, a grown woman who only now might be starting to believe in fairy tales. The only major complaint I’ve been seeing from some sources is that some of the effects in the fantasy sequences don’t look convincing enough, but from my perspective, given that they are set in a heightened, fairy tale world, not looking real isn’t a problem. Looking too real would be. I also happened to find the dragon in the most recent episode most impressive, indeed.
A television show as purely magical on every level as Once Upon a Time doesn’t come around too often, and as long as it remains this beautifully written, acted, and presented, I, for one, am going to treasure it.