Monday, October 24, 2011
“If LOST was about redemption, Once Upon a Time is about hope.” So say Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, the LOST writers who have teamed up to create Once Upon a Time. As LOST was, indeed, largely about redemption for me – and as Kitsis and Horowitz wrote my favorite episode, Dr. Linus, which embodies the theme of redemption better than any other – I am inclined to take this as a very good sign. These are master storytellers out to spin a tale that taps into our deep-seated longing for a happy ending, something that seems to be passing out of favor in film and television too often. So much bleakness… I need a show that can help me to feel better about the world, not worse. I need a show that acknowledges a sense of possibility. I’ve been waiting for Once Upon a Time, and I think it can deliver.
Once Upon a Time is a curious animal because we are working largely with established characters who most viewers will have known since childhood. We all have preconceived notions about them. My hunch is that some of our expectations will be met and some will be turned on their heads. This show, as I understand it, will be every bit as character-centric as LOST, delving into the back stories of classic figures like Snow White, the Wicked Queen, Geppetto, Rumplestiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood. In this case, the pristine wonderland will be in the flashbacks, not the present day, so to some extent I wonder whether I will feel more connected to those, in part simply because I want to step into that world. In its own way, that fairy tale world is quite as gorgeous as the Island.
Our current-day tale unfolds in Boston, where a tough gal with abandonment issues is spending a pretty miserable 28th birthday until she makes a wish on a star – the star-shaped candle on her birthday cupcake – and her dream of companionship comes true. In walks a little boy who claims to be her son. She is Emma, he is Henri, and it seems that theirs may be the central relationship of the show. Emma is played by Jennifer Morrison, who I know as Cameron, the doctor on House who I liked a lot better in earlier seasons. Speaking of doctors, she seems to be this show’s Jack. Destiny hangs heavy upon her; it has been said that she will be the one to restore the lost kingdom to its former glory. However, that’s just crazy talk as far as she is concerned, and she wants nothing to do with it. Yet by the end of the episode, she has already taken a step toward fulfilling that calling.
Jared Gilmore, new to me but with three years of TV credits to his name, is Henri, the adopted son of the Wicked Queen, who in this world is the mayor of Storybrooke, Maine. Like Walt, Henri is cute but rather creepy. He’s “special.” On Once Upon a Time, these characters are, in a sense, frozen in a sort of suburban purgatory, never to age while the clock stands still. Snow White, who now goes by Mary, certainly doesn’t look a day older than she did in her fairy tale realm. However, Henri is not native to that land, so perhaps he does age at a normal rate. Nonetheless, if the show proceeds as slowly as LOST did, with only a day or two per episode, he could fall into the Walt trap of aging far too quickly. But that’s a bridge they can cross if they come to it.
I am fairly familiar with Ginnifer Goodwin, and like Amy Adams, she just seems to have a Disney Princess air about her. Her Snow White – the one who remembers who she is and the one who doesn’t – is sweet and optimistic but with a light shroud of melancholy hanging over her. Snow White is Emma’s mother, and it will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out with the two women about the same age. She and Henri already share a powerful bond, and I imagine the three will form a potent team before long, even though the mayor’s disapproval will make meetings between Emma and Henri difficult. I love the moment when she returns that brilliant blue bird to its birdhouse. It’s such a wonderful way to show how her true identity seeps into her role in this land the Queen claims is devoid of all happiness.
Even though the characters are live action in both worlds, the show often reminded me of Enchanted, and I’m sure they were just as intentional about that as they were about the fact that the address of the mayor’s house is 108. Lana Parrilla plays the Queen, and while she was pretty personable in her two-episode stint as “good cop” Other Greta down in the hatch with Charlie in Through the Looking Glass, she is icily creepy here. One wonders why this monarch is in this waiting place that she inflicted on the rest of them. I’m also curious about the relationship between the Queen and Snow White. She was an adoptive mother to her; did she earnestly want to raise her, but something got in the way of that happening so now she’s fulfilling that lost dream with Henri? Emma asked if she loved Henri, but it wasn’t clear to me from Emma’s expression whether she was telling the truth in her response. I love the truth detection; that’s a nifty skill to cultivate. It’s like she has her own inner alethiometer.
Dad says that before this is all over, the Queen will probably be the “good guy.” I wouldn’t go that far. She seems pretty darn evil to me. But I do expect that we will have at least some reason to feel sorry for her. Like Smokey, she is capable both of vanishing in a puff of smoke and of causing extreme destruction. She desperately wants something that she can’t have, and she will go to any lengths necessary to get it. But what exactly would constitute her happy ending? The Queen also reminded me of Narnia’s White Witch, particularly since it is through Geppetto’s finely crafted wardrobe that baby Emma escapes her doomed country to resurface in the middle of nowhere in modern America.
It’s plain that playing Spot the Literary References will be just as much fun here as in LOST. You never know when a new one might turn up. Since the primary source material is fairy tales (and ABC is owned by Disney, which serves as many youngsters’ introduction to the genre), kids could play at this game almost as well as adults, though I’m not yet certain how appropriate this show is for children younger than high school. So far, the only big issue is violence, and while it’s not pervasive, there are a couple of scenes that get fairly graphic. Additionally, both the Queen and the raggedy Rumplestiltskin, played by a very unsettling Robert Carlyle, are downright scary. Then again, as it seems that 10-year-old Henri is the only character fighting on the side of the good who knows exactly what is going on, children really have an important character to latch onto.
Once Upon a Time is beautifully filmed and written, and I am already growing attached to some of the characters. So far, it seems poised to be all that I hoped it would, and I look forward to seeing how they explore, honor and twist these beloved characters in the weeks to come, ideally retaining an audience large enough to allow it to build toward the Happily Ever After that will serve as a natural complement to the title. No doubt there will be many nasty turns along the way, but I am eager to take them.