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Once Upon a Time: Series Premiere

By Matt Meier · September 8, 2011

Once upon a time in an enchanted kingdom far, far away, all the classic characters of our childhood—Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), and, of course, Prince Charming (Josh Dalls)—lived a perfect life of happily ever afters.  But no fairytale can be without its villain, and the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) of this magical land resented the others for having their happy endings.  So one day, she cast a spell that trapped them in a place where time stands still, where no one remembers the magical land from which they once came, and where happy endings only exist in fairytales. 

But before the spell was cast, Snow White and Prince Charming sent their newborn daughter, Emma Swan (the adult Swan played by Jennifer Morrison), through a magical portal that saved her from being trapped with the rest of them, so that on her 28th birthday, she could return to them and break the Evil Queen’s spell, restoring their happy endings once again…

It’s a tale of such familiar appeal, you’d swear you remember reading the same story as a child.  Yet try as you might, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything quite like Once Upon A Time, the new fairytale-driven fall series for Disney-owned ABC.  After working seven seasons as writer/producers for the network’s retired hit series Lost, creators Adam Horowitz & Edward Kitsis once again offer audiences a unique union of fantasy and realism.  But unlike their more labrynthine former credit, Once Upon A Time relies on expectation, not deception, to form the basis for its appeal, giving new meaning to old stories as the postmodern fairytale that TV has been waiting for.

Once Upon A Time is essentially a tale of two worlds—the fairytale and the real—and the pilot introduces us to each one as its own distinct narrative, cutting between the two before gradually arriving at the point at which they converge.  Don’t get it twisted, though—the story of Once Upon A Time as a whole is decidedly fairytale, and the series unambiguously situates our expectations and suspension of disbelief as such in the opening minutes of the premiere, particularly with the opening text that prefaces the very first scene:

“Once upon a time there was an enchanted forest filled with all the classic characters we know.  Or think we know.  One day they found themselves trapped in a place where all their happy endings were stolen.  Our World.  This is how it happened…”

Director Mark Mylod captures the aesthetics of the fairytale kingdom with the majestic charm one would expect from the genre, and the opening minutes prove particularly impressive.  Prince Charming rides his noble white steed across a sweeping coniferous landscape into the heart of a snow-sprinkled forest, where his gentle kiss awakens her from eternal slumber.  The couple then marries in a magnificent castle of marble and stained glass with all the fairytale characters in attendance; but the Evil Queen intrudes on the affair before its completion and announces her plan to trap them in a world without happy endings:  “I shall destroy your happiness if it is the last thing I do.”

It’s pretty much everything you expect of a fairytale.  The dialogue, though slightly derivative at times, proves sufficiently charming; the characters fit into neatly defined roles of good and evil; and the story all takes place in a majestic and glamorous kingdom to which we all wish we could one day escape.  The accomplishments of Mylod and writers Horowitz & Kitsis in creating an appealing fantasy universe is certainly nothing to scoff at.  But what truly sets the episode apart is their ability to illustrate this highly fictitious universe alongside a cogent representation of the real world and yet maintain a sense of cohesion throughout.

Following the inciting incident of the fairytale—the Queen declaring her plans for destruction—the scene morphs into an illustrated picture in a book, one being read on a bus by an 11-year-old boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore).  The rest of the fairytale, leading up to Baby Emma being sent through the portal into the real world as the Queen’s spell destroys the land of fairytales, unfold self-reflexively as chapters from Henry’s book.  The differences between these fairytale scenes and the early depictions of reality are rather stark.  The real world unfolds through muted hues and grounded dialogue, and Emma’s story is far from a fairytale.

Although we, presuming the fairytale to be the true story, know that Emma was sent away from the fairytale kingdom as a baby so she could eventually return and save the kingdom, Emma’s self-perceived backstory is far different.  After being abandoned as a baby on the side of a highway, Emma spent most her lonely childhood moving between various foster homes, got pregnant as a teen, giving her baby boy up for adoption, and now works as a bail bond agent, dealing with a rather unsavory crowd every day. 

But on Emma’s 28th birthday, 11 year old Henry (who is her son) arrives at Emma’ house to explain that she must return to Storybrook to break the spell of the Evil Queen (Henry’s adoptive mother). Of course Emma scoffs at the notion that any of this could be true, and the characters of Storybrook themselves do not remember their former lives as fairytale characters, but we understand the fairytale story to be the true one, with the continuing narrative of the show being whether or not Emma can save the town.

It’s rather difficult to anticipate where the show will go from here.  One would assume that we can expect far less of the fairytale world itself, which now exists only as Storybrook, a town that, although aesthetically situated in reality, presents much of the charm and mystique of a classic fairytale.  Furthermore, having established itself as a fairytale at heart, we know that at some point Emma will save the town, and they will return to their happily ever after.  But this is no film—this is a series, one with no finite length.  How will writers maintain our interest when the happy ending is nowhere in sight?

The show thus is almost paradoxical in its nature.  The fairytale genre is one of escapism, an opportunity to immerse ourselves within an enchanting universe where good always conquers evil, and the only ending is the happy one.  Yet with Once Upon A Time, our fairytale is a place where all happy endings have been stolen, and our heroic princess is a cynic with a troubled past.  Perhaps it’s symptomatic of a decade marked by war crimes, white-collar corruption, and terrorism, and we’ve grown immune to the traditional notion of a fairytale.  But Once Upon A Time is not concerned with our hopelessly stagnant unemployment rates, our exponentially exorbitant debt, or an approaching presidential election in which the people must decide between an incumbent president who has perpetually fallen short on his promise for change and an oppositional party who has impeded progress every step of the way.  No, Once Upon A Time, like most fairytales, centers upon one distinct concept: Hope.

When Emma asks Sister Mary (Snow White’s character in the real world) why she gave Henry the fairytale book, Mary explains:  “I wanted Henry to have the most important thing anyone can have: hope.  Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing.”

The last person who ran on a campaign of Hope isn’t too well liked right now.  But hey, that was our world, the real world.  This is a fairytale, after all, and in fairytales, it’s okay to believe in happy endings, even when they seem a world away.