Once Upon a Time: “Pilot”

Disney Noir

Once Upon a Time

ABC, Sundays, 8 PM ET/PT


Written by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz
Directed by Mark Mylod

“What do you think stories are for?” —Mary Margaret

It’s no coincidence, I believe, that ABC is owned by Disney, and is now bringing a more or less live-action version of some of Disney’s most popular stories to the small screen. The trouble is that ABC does not appear to know what it wants to do with them. Animation? Only a few minor bits, like Jiminy Cricket. CGI? Lots of it, especially when we “flash back” to the fairy-tale setting of our pilot episode. But there’s also lots of gritty realism, cynicism, and despair flavoring Once Upon a Time. People die, weep, lose everything they love—and there’s no guarantee good will triumph over evil. On the one hand, I find it refreshing that these tales seem to hew closer than anything else I’ve ever seen to the actual tales from the too-aptly-named Grimm Brothers. On the other hand, I am deeply suspicious of the Disney franchise. Like Steven Spielberg, they cannot help themselves: all endings have to be “happy”, no matter how forced.

“Everything you love will be taken from you forever.” —Evil Queen

We open on a scene that might come right out of Disney: a glass coffin enclosing a woman in white with raven-black hair, surrounded by seven grieving little men (not dwarves, but not NBA players, either). A handsome prince (Josh Dallas, Thor) arrives on a white horse, orders the coffin opened, and kisses Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, Big Love) awake. For the next few minutes, we get the Happily Ever After: the declarations of love, the wedding, a baby girl. Then the Evil Queen (Lana Parilla, Medium) arrives with a curse and ruins it all. Vowing vengeance on the entire kingdom, she sends them all to another, horrible place—Maine, in our modern world. (Maine? Really? That’s the worst she can come up with?) As a bonus, she causes them all to forget who they are, who they love, who they mourn. Even as the curse comes down, however, Snow White saves her newborn baby, Emma, even as she grieves over the body of her prince, who died to save the child. Like I said, not your usual fairy tale ending, but it’s an uneven experience: on the one hand, we have grim dungeons, wrath, terror, black magic, and heroic death. On the other hand, everyone dresses like a high school production of, well, Snow White. It’s a wash, frankly.

Emma: Just because you believe something doesn’t make it true.

Henry: That’s exactly what makes it true.

And then it all ramps up by a factor of ten, when we switch to the present day. Jennifer Morrison (House) plays bail bondsperson Emma Swan (heh), who chases down deadbeats, bail jumpers, and other minor scum. She’s a huntress in five-inch heels, and she’s pissed off because she has to work on her birthday. In her first few minutes onscreen, she takes down a bail jumper while wearing a sprayed-on red dress that would have given Gregory House a heart attack. When she gets home, she celebrates her birthday by making a wish before she blows out the candle on her cupcake—and the doorbell rings. We meet young Henry (Jared Gilmore, Wilfred), who has come all the way from the hamlet of Storybrooke, Maine, to claim Emma as his long-lost birth mother. Henry has a book of fairy stories with him, which he insists are real. He says Emma has to help the people of Storybrooke find their way back to their true happy endings, whatever they are. This plea, delivered as she is driving Henry back to his home in Storybrooke, fails to move our loner heroine. We arrive in Storybrooke, appropriately, in the dead of night. And then things get really weird.

“Giving in to one’s dark side never accomplishes anything.” —Archie

The first person Emma meets in this deserted small town is Archie (Rafael Sbarge, No Ordinary Family), who turns out to be Henry’s shrink. Henry tells Emma in an aside that Archie is actually Jiminy Cricket, but Archie’s forgotten that. Yeah, I think I’d forget something like that; in fact, I’d make sure of it. Henry apparently has memorized the book of tales, and is persuaded that everyone in Storybrooke is a character from the book. Emma isn’t buying it, and drags Henry home—to the Evil Queen. When Henry’s mom (Parilla again, in a dual role), who is the mayor of Storybrooke, opens the door, we see that she’s the Evil Queen, and now the two worlds introduced in the first half of this pilot have intersected for sure.

“You may have given birth to him, but he’s my son.” —Evil Queen

Re-visioning the Evil Queen as a modern day Mayor was a good idea, but casting her in the role of wicked step/adoptive mother is genius. She can fill two stereotyped fairy tale roles at once. Which is going to be a requirement on this show, I can tell. It’s going to be confusing going forward, as the writers intertwine modern and flashback characters, so that Emma is really Snow White and the Evil Queen is really the Mayor and the local bailiff down at the jail is actually Gepetto, and so on. What do I call these people? When Emma tries to track down who gave Henry the book of stories, she meets a saintly young schoolteacher named Mary Margaret—who is the modern “incarnation” of Snow White. Emma is (unknown to both) the daughter of Mary Margaret/Snow White (who actually looks younger than Emma) which makes Mary Margaret/Snow White the grandmother of Henry. And here I thought keeping track of the multiple-identity characters in Fringe was tough. I just hope Henry doesn’t turn out to be Prince Charming, or things are going to get really creepy.

“The Evil Queen sent a bunch of fairy tale characters here?” —Emma Swan

The way it plays, many scenes are too sweet for fans of, say, Game of Thrones, and not funny/irreverent enough for fans of Shrek. I’m not really sure who would find them engaging—the “fairy tale” folks talk entirely too much like modern people, but wear costumes out of Gilbert & Sullivan. No motivation at all is given the Evil Queen: she does evil things because she’s, well, evil. But the performances are first rate: Morrison does a fine job of first establishing Emma as a no-nonsense, world-weary cynic, and then as a tentative, suspicious yet vulnerable woman rediscovering what she gave up a decade ago. Young Jared Gilmore manages to charm me so much I can overlook the glaring deficiencies in his story. Best of all, Robert Carlyle (Stargate: SGU) plays Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, spins straw into gold as a snarky, evil gamine who snarls his way through lines that would otherwise be cringe-inducing. Only Lana Parilla disappoints, as a lukewarm “villain” who looks like she would be more at home on Desperate Housewives than a tale of the supernatural. And one problem bothered me all night: the women all look alike. I honestly thought that the characters of Snow White and Emma Swan were being played by the same actress, wearing a wig, for most of the episode. Maybe that’s supposed to reinforce our perception of them as mother and daughter, but it backfired: Jennifer Morrison and Ginnifer Goodwin look more like sisters. Twin sisters.

“Every story in this book actually happened.” —Henry

For a show about fairy tales, there’s a suspiciously close correlation between Disney movies and the main stories referenced here. We get references to Snow White and Pinocchio, two of the Mouse House’s most enduring movies. We get scenes where the Evil Queen plays more like Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty). Only Carlyle’s Rumplestiltskin comes from a movie (Shrek the Third) not from a Disney studio. Since Disney owns ABC, this is perhaps not to be wondered at, but it would be interesting to see if the show incorporates some fairy tales less closely identified with blockbuster animation: Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Riding Hood, or maybe something more obscure. More likely, we’ll get some heavy-handed references to the Frog Prince (The Princess and the Frog), or Rapunzel (Tangled), or perhaps will stray from Grimm Brothers territory into Hans Christian Anderson (The Little Mermaid). If, however, the show adheres to the, ah, grimmer versions of the originals, even those references might be less than twee.

“No more happy endings.” —Rumplestiltskin

The original versions of these tales are much harsher and more violent than the versions we are used to seeing in nursery books; in the original Grimm tale, for example, the Evil Queen is Snow White’s own mother, not a step-mother, and Snow White revenges herself by torturing her. Similarly, the original story of Pinocchio includes a bit where Pinocchio kills Jiminy Cricket with a hammer. Judging the folk tale too “harsh” for children, the Grimms and then later writers (notably the Disney Studio) adapted or deleted those more disturbing elements. Perhaps modern audiences will be judged to be a little more mature. If so, expect a darker version of familiar stories than you or your children may be used to.

“All their happy endings were stolen.” —Prologue

ABC certainly had a happy ending for its premiere of Once Upon a Time. The pilot episode racked up the highest ratings of any prime-time debut this fall, which is even more impressive given that it was up against both the World Series and Sunday Night Football. Over 12.8 million viewers tuned in, for a 3.9 rating/10 share in the 18-49 demographic. That’s not only ABC’s best premiere this fall, it’s better than any ABC premiere last fall. ABC has got to be happy ever after with ratings like that, so look for more fractured fairy tales in the coming weeks.