Once upon a time, on a network not so far away, a new television show aired with endless potential. It’s a story we’ve heard before, but that’s the point. Inherent in the phrase “once upon a time” is that we will recognize some or all of what we are about to hear, but the alterations and creative qualities shape the happily ever afters.
ABC joins the timeless tradition of fairytale adaptations with their newest drama, “Once Upon a Time.” Created by “Lost” veterans Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, the show crosses the line between blissful fantasy and brutal reality by bringing fairytale characters from every neck of the enchanted forest into Storybrooke, Maine — their own personal prison keeping them from their happy endings.
The story begins in familiar territory: Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) rides to the rescue and awakens Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) from her deep sleep. As the creatures of the enchanted kingdom celebrate the pair’s marriage, they are interrupted by the evil queen (Lana Parilla) who vows to take away everyone’s happiness as a punishment for her own misery.
We are pulled out of the pages of our fairytale into the real world, where 10-year-old Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore) seeks out his birth mother, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison). He believes her to be the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, making her the only hope for the characters stuck in Storybrooke under the tyrannical rule of Regina, also know as the evil queen.
Every actor plays two roles and every character has two lives. The premise of “Once Upon a Time” takes us back and forth between the real world and the fairy tale world to learn more about the characters who are trapped in only a shade of their true selves.
Just as fairytales retell themselves over and over throughout oral tradition, this set-up has the unsettling effect of stories and characters repeating themselves in the two worlds. We hear about the curse from Henry, and then we see the queen casting the curse. The blending of stories takes us out of our element, making us more aware of story-telling devices than the actual story itself.
Other times, however, the flashback narrative enhances the real world, giving the audience the motives, history and context that are lacking from Storybrooke, Maine. It is a one-dimensional town, with characters that accept the fact that time never passes, nothing ever changes and no one ever ages.
Where Henry is driven by his imagination and pure belief in the fairytale world, Emma is driven by her newfound concern for the son she gave away — together, they are the only two characters from the real world who can lead the revolt in Storybrooke. Mirror, mirror on the wall. Looks like Snow White’s daughter might be the one to free them all.
Emma’s presence in the town gives hope and color to the lives of everyone around her. The motionless clock starts ticking and Regina’s scarily perfect apple tree is sawed to the ground.
The balance between the real world and fairyland allows the writers to drag out the story without it seeming like a cheap trick.
It also provides the groundwork for showcasing the strong cast that has been put together. Morrison and Gilmore work well together as actors, her tough “I grew-up-on-the-street” vibe meshing with his adorable smile and charisma.
As we learn more about the pasts and futures of the characters we think we know so well, my hope is that we spend less time harping on Parilla’s ability to deliver every line with an evil undertone. While she provides an entertaining performance as Regina/evil queen in the first couple of episodes, the show is better off spending time unlocking the doors to the past of the vast quantities of characters at hand. But the narrative device immediately has the audience asking, how long will it be until everyone realizes who they really are? And then what?
If the show puts it off for too long the audience will get antsy, but if they do it too soon, the show will be over. With the writing talent of Horowitz and Kitsis combined with powerhouse Jane Espenson (“Buffy” and “Battlestar Galatica”) and Liz Tigelaar (“Life Unexpected”), I’ll just put it on faith that they have something up their sleeve.
Until then, watching familiar characters in unfamiliar settings seems fun enough to hold me over until the show reaches those happily ever afters.
“Once Upon a Time” airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Rosenberg is a member of the class of 2012.