Once Upon a Time: Season 1
Like many things in life television programming follows popular trends. This has held for the population’s infatuation with shows concerned with lawyers, doctors and detectives. The trend du jour just happens to be the supernatural. This ranges from the reinvention of classic creature feature monsters to the reinterpretation of our childhood fairy tales. Awhile ago fame American musical composer, Stephen Sondheim, brought the fairy tales to life in a twisted fashion in a play called, ‘Into the Woods’. This current TV season included two new series revolved around this premise; ‘Grimm’ and the one under consideration here, ‘Once Upon a Time’. The first takes the format of a police procedural while this one was built along the lines of an unfolding mystery set against a richly textured world of imagination clashing headlong into reality. While it took me awhile to get into ‘Grimm’ my interest in ‘Once Upon a Time’ was close to instantaneous. The main reason for this lays in the way the supernatural elements were infused into the story. With this series there is a two ply universe were the natural and supernatural are overlain. The exposition had to reinforce this concept so the writers introduced the characters and fundamental circumstances episodically at first. Each of the episodes gradually provides the distinctive back stories and crafts the all important interconnections. The foundation of the story is simultaneously beautiful in its simplicity and rich in intriguing potential. A little boy, Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore) lives in a sleepily little town and discovers a large book of fairy tales. He comes to the conclusion that the people of his community are actually the characters in the stories. Not a presentation of them but the actual people in the stories. He becomes convinced that the book holds the key to releasing the town from the grip of some diabolical curse. Right there the show runner has created a perfect stage were that emulates the fairy tale; the innocence of a child with the brutality of adults. If you look at the oldest text of our favorite fairy tales most are exceptionally violent. The Disney studios reinvented most of these stories in their canon if animated film providing the family friendly version most of us are familiar with. Since Disney is the parent company of the broadcasting network, ABC, the tropes employed here generally fit the Disney version of the mythos.
Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) has always been independent, tough and street savvy. This is well expressed in her profession as a bounty hunter. Her ability to follow clues combined with her relentless determination to find answers has made her reputation rather formidable. Her life was usually a mess but ultimately somewhat manageable until the night of her 28th birthday. That is when ten year old Henry entered her life. Emma gave the boy up for adoption at his birth never expecting to ever see him again. Emma decides to return him to his adopted mother and the pair set off to Storybrooke, Maine. During the trip Henry shows Emma a book of fairy tales informing her that the characters in the stories are the people in the town. Emma is initially certain it is just a child with a vivid imagination, until she spends a few days in Storybrooke. At this point the thread of the series alternates between the real world and the tales related in the large book. Each actor in the show, with the necessary exception of Ms Morrison and young master Gilmore play two roles, one in each universe. Henry’s mother, Regina (Lana Parrilla) is also the Evil Queen while the pretty school teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin) is also Snow White. The town’s psychologist, Archie Hopper (Raphael Sbarge) doubles as Jiminy Cricket while the town’s wealthiest citizen, Mr. Gold ((Robert Carlyle) is the trickster and purveyor of magic, Rumplestiltskin. Has you might have noticed each of the Storybrooke names reflects their fairytale identity. A significant part of the fun in the series is catching the references and matching how the personality traits are manifested in both universes. In Fairy tale land the Evil Queen cast a powerful spell that took the inhabitants, transported them here and froze time. When Emma decides to stay for Henry’s sake the spell begins to unravel much to the consternation of Regina/The Evil Queen. Most of the townsfolk are unaware of their alter egos with the notable exceptions of Regina and Mr. Gold. Of the more ingenious character juxtapositions is the town waitress Ruby (Meghan Ory). With her perchance for bright red lipstick and crimson oriented fashion she is the alternate for Little Red Riding Hood. This is subtly reinforced by her keychain, a crystal wolf.
The brilliance inherent in this series is the way each episode explores a different aspect of the overall story by telling the origin story of as storybook character and infusing elements of it into the situation in our world. As Emma grows stronger through increased understanding and, more importantly, belief in her son’s claims, she grows as an overt danger to the maintenance of the spell and Regina’s control of the town. Emma discovers she is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming and was sent here to undo the spell at the proper moment. There are some mind bending implications accompanying this, she becomes best friends with Mary Margret who is actually her own mother. This also makes Henry the teacher’s grandson. These odd family connections are integral to the plot and are handled in an extraordinarily coherent fashion.
As strange and convoluted as of this may seem the writers do a remarkable job of pulling the audience in and making the plot twists clear enough to enhance the enjoyment of the unfolding mystery. Above all else this show is a character driven tale presented by one of the better ensemble cast ever assembled. Goodwin is fresh off a long stint as a sister wife on ‘Big Love’ while Morrison is familiar to television audience for her role on ‘House, M.D.’. In every case the cast is truly versatile able to successfully portray two distinct versions of the same characters. The core personalities in both worlds are always the same; the genius of the performances is in the nuances given to each depiction. Thankfully the series has been picked up for a second season. After all there are still a lot of fairy tales left to include in the story.