May 17, 2012

Should you watch the Once Upon a Time pilot on ABC?[Review Time]

Emma Swan is a bail-bondsperson, a loner, a mother who gave up her child for adoption, an orphan, and the daughter of Snow White. Or at least that's what her son Henry tells her when he shows up ten years after being put up for adoption. 

The story really begins at Emma's apartment after a birthday wish to not be alone. The doorbell rings, and there is the son she gave up, as well as the first hint of magic in a very mundane life.

Even when the wish comes true, Emma keeps her distance from Henry, and she certainly doesn’t believe him when he tells her she needs to come to his home, Storybrook Maine, to save our favourite Fairy Tale characters from the terror that is life in the real world, where they’ve been put by the Evil Queen. That's right: the Queen's curse is to live the kind of daily life we live, with no happy endings.

Emma is resistant to staying with Henry, but of course, he's a meddling kid, the kind we all love that can always find a way to get what he wants.

Emma is played by Jennifer Morison (@jenmorrisonlive on Twitter). You may remember her as Cameron on House and Zoe, the very annoying love-interest to Ted, on How I Met Your Mother, but she's a pretty genuine actress and on Once Upon a Time her character serves as the voice of the annoyed audience member reacting cynically to all this talk of Fairy Tale characters walking around Maine. It's a pretty obvious tactic, but Morrison does it well, and she's very funny.

It’s kind of an interesting story. Hopefully it’s going somewhere unpredictable. It's written by Lost crew, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, so it probably will, but Once Upon a Time gets off to a very slow start in terms of the suspense, the tension, and the stakes. The writing of the dialogue was also very underwhelming, particularly in the Fairy Tale world, but I guess that’s to be expected. You can’t expect Snow White to have the brilliant dialogue of Catelyn Stark from Game of Thrones; she’s a ditsy little princess. However, giving her a bit of an edge would have saved me some yawns.

What did I like about it? The characterization of Emma was pretty neat and hilarious. While Howlin’ For You by the Black Keys is a little bit over-used in film and TV this year (it’s pretty much the theme song for Limitless, which I just watched), there’s nothing like seeing a beautiful woman in heels walking calmly in front of traffic after a panicked man she’s pursuing to the beat of a really good rock song. Emma is characterized as a badass, which is the kind of hero I prefer, as I’ve stated before. It’s a little unfortunate that she’s breaking into tears about what a poor orphan life she’s had a few scenes later; I felt that breakdown could have happened in a few episodes, giving us time to get used to her as fierce and strong before she becomes a crybaby.

The Evil Queen is interesting. In the real world she has to come off as more multi-dimensional, so she tells us, “I’m not evil,” and it’s true. In the real world, she’s a single mother and the mayor of a small town and she may have been strict in raising Henry, but she does love him. On the other hand, she does come off as evil when she sends Emma away. Emma gave up Henry in a closed adoption, but he found her, not the other way around, and it’s pretty evil to keep them apart now that a relationship has formed. And the Evil Queen even goes so far as to threaten getting a restraining order. Harsh.

Some favourite Fairy Tale characters you’ll be seeing include Snow White, Prince Charming, the Evil Queen, Jimminy Cricket, and Geppetto and his son Pinocchio. Rumpelstiltskin is given an important role as the seer who foresees the Evil Queen’s curse that will trap them in Storybrooke forever, and it’s he who reveals that Emma will be the one to save them all. Once Upon a Time plays up the importance of names as giving control here, which is a very old idea of magic that Tolkien played with as well.

Of course, the visual effects and all that jazz are stunning, but since I watch television for the writing, I don’t really care at all. The writing better pick up in the episodes to come. Introductions can be hard and even though the exposition was well done, with flashes between the real world and the Fairy Tale world, and Emma’s character presented in an amusing and not-obvious way, this one just fell a little flat. The writers are going to need to raise the stakes and really make me care in the episodes to come. So far it’s been fairly predictable and somewhat one-dimensional. I’m definitely not wowed.

Look out for a few things: tons and tons of apples, reminding you of Snow White's poisoned apple, and allusions to Lost. When Emma wakes up in jail there's a definite Lost moment when we see her closed eyes open. It really just made me want to watch Lost!

If you want to own Once Upon a Time the TV series on DVD, make sure you get the full First Season (available here through my Amazon associate’s link). Don’t pay for the DVD set entitled Chapter 1 - it’s only the first five episodes and a terrible deal. Season 1 is also available on Netflix.
What to take away from this? Give Once Upon a Time a try if it sounds like it's up your alley. Come along with me an give it a chance. I'll let you know if it gets better or worse, but for now, with good casting and the promise of some allusions to Lost and twists, it's worth a shot.

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