I didn’t have high expectations for Once Upon a Time. Along with Grimm on NBC, it’s one of the two not-quite-Fables series airing this season; the Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano or Armageddon vs. Deep Impact of our day. As I was watching the pilot episode, I wondered if they even bothered going after the Fables license, or if they just decided to cut out the middle man — and, to be honest, continue the Disney tradition — and exploit some public domain stories. As it turns out, they did go after the rights for a Fables series, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason.
Watching it felt like I was being unfaithful.
But now that I’ve got Bill Willingham’s approval, I can admit it’s a pretty good series. And it’s really not all that much like Fables.
They both start with a bunch of disparate fairy tale characters living together in the same town in the modern world. After that, though, Once Upon a Time feels like it owes less to Fables than it does to Lost.
That’s fair enough, since all the marketing material reminds us that two of Lost‘s executive producers are behind the show. So you can excuse all the appearances of Apollo bars, and the fact that the entire format of the series is taken directly from Lost: TV-pretty people trapped in a secluded location trying to figure out a series-long conundrum; each episode featuring two parallel stories in two different timelines, with each timeline giving context to the other.
And that’s okay, because that format is just as clever and flexible now as it was during the Dharma Initiative days. Even better, it actually makes sense here. In Lost, the flashbacks were used to stretch out the intrigue: we’d learn details about the characters based on past events. In Once Upon a Time, the situation is flipped: we in the audience know more about the characters’ stories than the characters themselves do. The premise is that they’ve all been placed under a curse that’s made them forget they’re storybook characters, to guarantee that none of them will have a happy ending.
That’s the most intriguing part to me, because it means that we have a better chance of getting a happy ending from Once Upon a Time than Lost was ever able to deliver. Everything in Lost depended on stretching the mystery out for as long as possible. Fables is in the same position, more or less: it’s an indefinitely ongoing story that has to keep building on itself. But with Once Upon a Time, we already know how the story’s going to end: they’re going to live happily ever after. The intrigue comes from the telling, and the re-telling.
Are Mary Margaret/Snow White and David/Prince Charming going to get together? Of course. Who are the bad guys? The Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin. How did they all end up trapped here? It was a curse from the Evil Queen. We know what’s going to happen, the appeal of the stories is seeing how they happen. No “Are they in Purgatory?” style blue-balling here.
Of course, they get to take advantage of their series-long intrigue as well. It’s all in the details, filling in the stuff that wasn’t covered in the original stories. What exactly was it about Snow White that made the Evil Queen so angry? Plus there’s all the secret origin stories — they’ve already done Prince Charming, Jiminy Cricket, Rumplestiltskin and the Huntsman, and made them more interesting than I would’ve thought possible.
And for those of us who watched Lost looking for occurrences of the numbers, the Dharma logo, cross-overs of familiar characters, and implausible coincidences, there’s plenty of material here. Familiar and not-so-familiar characters pop up, and we can speculate on who they are and how their stories intersect. In this week’s episode, we saw how Snow White first met the dwarves. Before the Christmas break, the sheriff that everyone assumed to be the Big Bad Wolf turned out to be a different character.
On top of that, there’s the recurring appeal of Fables, which is seeing how fairy tale characters get translated to the modern day. And they’re usually clever and subtle. A bearded pharmacy owner reveals his fairy tale identity as soon as he sneezes. Red Riding Hood works for her grandmother and delivers food. A cleaning woman named Ashley turns out to be Cinderella. (That one was my favorite). I’m still hoping that they do an episode with a young blonde girl breaking into the home of three big, hairy gay men.
Another thing that I really like about the series is that it’s completely driven by female characters. The two heroes and the main villain are all women. And it’s done seamlessly, by virtue of the source material. Most of the fairy tales focused on female main characters, and yet still managed to make them all passive. When you update those characters to the modern day — or when you retell the original stories with a modern sensibility — you end up with stories centered on strong, intelligent, and independent women.
The casting (and stunt casting) helps, too. Jennifer Morrison is cool as hell and had me hoping for an entire season that she’d be Ted Mosby’s kids’ mother. It’s nice to see Ginnifer Goodwin not in insipid romantic comedies that try to pretend she’s not astoundingly beautiful. I have to admit to having a voice-crush on Raphael Sbarge since he played a Han Solo rip-off character in Knights of the Old Republic. Lana Parrilla has one note she has to keep hitting over and over again, and she’s still managing to change it up slightly between episodes (but they really need to give her something more to work with instead of just saying “You’re not welcome here, Miss Swan” repeatedly). And Robert Carlyle does fey, creepy, and menacing better than most.
Plus they’ve done plenty of guest appearances from actors from just about every nerd fantasy series I like: Pam from True Blood as Maleficient. Krycek from The X-Files as Hansel & Gretel’s dad. Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Hansel & Gretel’s witch. Charles Widmore from Lost as Prince Charming’s father.
I don’t think Once Upon a Time is as ground-breaking a series as Lost was. I can’t see it ever doing anything as stunning as the season two reveal of what was inside the Hatch. It’s not quite as hip or self-aware. (Which is partly a good thing, since going too self-aware with fairy tale stories would be insufferable; remaining a little bit square is exactly the right tone to hit). It relies a little too much on green screens and CGI (although it makes up for it with great costumes). And I do have to wonder how they’re going to get a series’ worth of material out of the premise.
It didn’t grab me instantly, like the Lost pilot did. But it’s had a great slow build-up so far, plenty of clever moments, great pacing, and just enough intrigue to carry it through the first season finale. And it’s really nice to see a series that doesn’t rely on dragging out mysteries, but recognizes the value of a familiar story told well.