I am going to launch yet another promising young genre (in this case fantasy) series in a schedule now jam packed with potentially interesting sci fi and fantasy entertainment...as we don't have the time we'd like to cover each episode individually in the start-up class for most of these new series...this will be a capsule review collection in the same way that Terra Nova 1:1 - 1:5 were tackled in capsule reviews. I will lead off with an introduction of the concept and then rate each of the first three episodes with some light commentary.
Grimm and this series have a common initial thought - what if the fairy tales were real? Grimm chose to make the bad guys real and the story narrative a bible for the enemies of those demonic creatures of fairy tale lore. Once Upon a Time takes a different tack. What if there was another reality - a world filled with magic and epic battles of good vs. evil - and that real, yet imagined place were brought into our world, but its principle actors had no idea who they really were? This concept has more appeal for me for several reasons which will be discussed a bit later, but for now, let's get the basic story jotted down so we're all caught up.
In a magical realm called the "enchanted wood," Prince Charming undoes an evil queen's curse and awakes snow white from her bite of the poison apple with a kiss. This moment is locked in the mind of every child who's ever read a single fairy tale. As it turns out, this attack with a poison apple is only the latest in a long series attempts by the evil queen to exact revenge on Snow White - she blames the hapless girl for ruining her life, though we do not yet know why. All we know is that Snow White, herself, accept the blame for having done so and meets Prince Charming (James) while hiding from the queen and stealing what she can from royal carriages. After the two fall in love and Prince Charming chooses her as his bride over an arranged marriage that was popular among competing kingdoms seeking peace, the Evil Queen returns on their wedding day and promises that she is preparing a curse that will steal all of their happy endings and render her the victor. That curse - which involves doing some unforgivable things in order to get the spell to work - is a transportation spell.
Everyone in the enchanted wood is brought to our world - to a town called Storybrook, ME - and cursed to stay there with no memory of who they are or where they came from. People who attempt to leave are doomed to an ugly fate and time has no meaning - memories fade with the passing of days and no one within the town ages. Snow White forgets her true love and becomes a school teacher in a land where the children never grow and happy endings are impossible. The evil queen becomes a ruthless mayor and rules the town with some breathtaking chicanery and political skill. Prince Charming - who is stabbed nearly to death in the battle to save his child from the curse - ends up a John Doe in a coma. And that child - placed in a wardrobe to protect her from the spell, is sent defenseless to Earth as an orphaned child and is called Emma. She searches in vein for her parents but the skill lands her work as a private investigator.
On her 28th birthday - as promised by the spell protecting the wardrobe in which she was placed - Emma returned to Storybrook, ME with a child named Henry who claims to be her son. Emma had given him up for adoption when she was 18 and he has found her, somehow with knowledge of this imagined world and its curse. The moment they return to Storybrook, Emma realizes how soulless the mayor is and chooses - despite doubting Herny's story - to stay in their little town to watch over her son. At that moment, time begins to march forward again and that part of the curse, at least, is lifted. Henry and Emma will now work together to try to unravel the truth and break the queen's stranglehold on these people, but many in the town are bound to the queen through the curse. The Sheriff is terrified to defy her orders, the innkeeper, Mr. Gold, is a wealthy human version of Rumplestiltskin and has arranged for his high standing in the town, though he does not know this. He also has the power to command the Mayor if he simply says "please," though again he has no clue about this. Many others in town simply fear the Mayor enough to play roles in her twisted schemes.
1:1 - Pilot (6.3)
The pilot does all the dirty work and very little of the fun character work, so I can't be too enthralled with it. It seems thematically strong, family friendly and very humane from the outset, but...and this problem may persist for a good long while yet - the acting is TERRIBLE. Especially from Snow White and the Evil Queen. Some of the worst acting I've personally observed since Babylon 5, with the possible exception of V (2009). All of the basic rules of this universe are set, and I did enjoy the pre-story tableau of Emma to which we were treated...her taking her perp on a blind date, springing her knowledge of his dirty dealings on him out of the blue and then calmly pursuing him, knowing that his car is booted and clubbed was awesome! An interesting start, but it does kinda blow by in a blur, so we'll need to withhold our praise for later episodes.
1:2 - The Thing You Love Most (8.8)
This is what I need more of! The back-story on the workings of the curse was very important to see (and more is coming...it looks like we're going to do a lot of flipping back and forth from the fairy tale world to our own). Thematically, this is actually very similar to the Harry Potter series in my mind - the only difference being that revenge, and not immortality, were at the heart of the villain's downfall. The cost of evil deeds, however, is entirely the same in both canons. The Queen may not originally have been so evil, except that she had to give up her soul to seek vengeance on Snow White...she had to kill her own father and the last person who had any faith that she might some day redeem herself to make the transportation spell work. While on the other side, the heroes of the piece has to give up something they loved (their child) to a higher cause (defeating evil) and did so out of that love and not out of malice, leading to the faint hope that some day happy endings will return.
1:3 - Snow Falls (8.0)
The acting is starting to improve across the board here...and I'm enjoying the many ways in which the writers are drawing parallels between the fairy-tale world and Storybrook. Not to mention all the fun I'm having seeing a somewhat more realistic portrayal of the courtship of Snow White (scoundrel and royal thief with a heart of gold and unfairly hunted by an evil queen) and Prince Charming. They actually managed to have some chemistry in this episode, which was cool. I think, also, that the message is spot on once again...that hell is being alone (not just in a romantic sense) and that real meaning might some day come to the lives of Emma and Mary Margaret when they embrace the reality that they are family.
I think the things that make this show more attractive to me than Grimm, at least for now, all come back to this - Fairy Tales as we know them are designed to teach lessons and tell us something about the human condition in imaginative and fantastic ways. Making them "real"...turning the fairy tale villains into actual beasts...seems to me to miss the point. Now they're not human vices we're reading out...they're actual monsters. Now they say nothing about us and fail to encourage our imaginations or our critical thinking skills at all. Meanwhile, Once Upon a Time features real people...from an imaginary world and endowed with the characteristics of those fantastic stories, but still human or representative of humanity at the very least. We get, with this show, the big stakes I like (an entire made up world is in peril of being trapped in a hellish freeze frame where happiness is impossible), the discussion of human virtue and vice that I need, and the chance to send a message in a family friendly way that Grimm just doesn't have at present. This show, to me, is what fantasy is all about.