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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Once Upon a Time there was a "Pilot"

     ABC's Once Upon a Time is a fairytale come to life. As "Pilot" begins, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, Big Love, Ed) and Prince Charming's (Josh Dallas, Thor) wedding is interrupted by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla, Swingtown, Miami Medical), who promises to curse the land and ruin everyone's happy endings. Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle, SGU Stargate Universe) tells the couple that their unborn daughter will be the savior, on her twenty-eighth birthday. Months later, Snow White gives birth to the girl, Emma, who is spirited away in Geppetto's (Tony Amendola, Stargate SG-1) wardrobe, just before the Evil Queen's curse sweeps through the land.

     In the real world, bail bondsman Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison, House, How I Met Your Mother) is turning twenty-eight when she is approached by a ten year old boy named Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore, Mad Men). Henry tells her that she is his biological mother. And also that fairy tales are real and trapped in Storybrooke, Maine, and only Emma can save them. She reluctantly accompanies him home, much to the displeasure of his mother (also Parilla). Still, while Emma doesn't believe Henry's tales, there is enough of a draw for her to rent a room at Granny's (Beverly Elliott, Harper's Island, 2012) and commit to staying for a week.

     How much of Once Upon a Time is real, and how much is imagined? Obviously, the fairytale premise must be believed in order to enjoy and understand the series. The fact that half of the "Pilot" is set in the fairytale land indicates that, at least in the show's universe, this actually happens. They are not just crazy delusions, which is what Emma thinks when Henry tells her about everything. She especially thinks Henry is delusional after meeting Henry's shrink, Archie Hopper (Raphael Sbarge, Dexter, Prison Break), whom Henry claims is really Jiminy Cricket (also Sbarge). It's easy to see why Emma might think Henry is crazy, but it's only a matter of time before she begins to come around.

     The concept of Storybrooke being frozen in time, the fairy tale characters not aging, is pretty cool. Except... what about the kids? Henry has lived in Storybrooke for the last ten years, as Regina's son. He looks like a ten year old, not an infant, so he has aged. So do, presumably, Ms. Blanchard's (also Goodwin) other students. Even if only the fairy tale characters are frozen, surely the kids and their parents notice that Ms. Blanchard looks the same as she did twenty-eight years ago? This is the sole stumbling block obvious in the "Pilot" of Once Upon a Time. Hopefully, it will be addressed.

     Well, that, and the incredible weirdness that will ensue when Emma realizes she is Blanchard / Snow White's daughter, even though they look about the same age.

     At the end of the episode, Storybooke's clock, frozen at 8:15, moves to 8:16. What does this signify? How late does the clock have to go before order can be restored, and magic can return to its own realm? Midnight would make the most sense, but this will be a delicate balancing act, depending on how many years the series might go on. After all, Emma should not be the savior until the battle is won. Can this concept be stretched for six seasons without a victory, and without fans growing tired of it?

     The show looks wonderful. The special effects are realistic enough, and there are a million tiny touches to lend authenticity. Details, such as Regina offering Emma a cup of apple cider, the bowl of apples in her home, or Ms. Blanchard getting a pear instead of an apple from a pupil. remind the audience of the characters' alter egos. The town of Storybrooke itself, partly from building design and costumes, exudes an otherworldliness that could pass in our reality, but is slightly off, making for an uneasy balance bound to be upset.

     The actors are all fantastic. Morrison gets to bring her cynical performance to a character that must undergo major change, giving her the actress's dream of showcasing a broad range over several seasons, should Once Upon a Time be favored by television viewers. Goodwin is also good, despite the unfortunate haircut she sports in the "real" world. Her chemistry with Dallas looks and feels like a fairy tale in both versions, aided by the great looking setting and production value. Gilmore is that rare child actor that has personality, and can handle a challenge. Thus, he should not drag down the series, but rather improve it with his presence.

     The performers tasked with the evil side of the coin are even better, especially because at least one of them surely knows the truth about what is happening. Parrilla plays the perfect bad guy, able to smile sweetly, while her gaze drips with poison. Jamie Dornan's (Marie Antoinette) Sheriff Graham is more guarded, with viewers left to wonder about his motivations and origin. He has not yet been shown in the fairy tale world. But Carlyle gets the plumb position, running the town in a greedy manner as Mr. Gold, but once offered help to Snow and the Prince in the fantasy realm. What are his goals? What does he want? His character may have offered aide to save his own skin as his world crashes around him, but he's doing well enough in this new life. Will he have a change of heart?

     If the "Pilot" is any indication, Once Upon a Time should be a rich adventure, full of dreams come to life and delightful fancy. Watch it Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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Article first published as TV Review: Once Upon a Time - "Pilot" on Blogcritics.

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