Every year, the broadcast TV system spits out a number of new and forgettable crime dramas, sitcoms and overall dreck that all fail to captivate an audience. But with the flick of a magic wand, Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz bucked that trend last Fall to give us Once Upon a Time, an adventure as magically delicious as Lucky Charms that revisits the fairy tales we all know and love. Leveraging those fables, some popular Disney fare and an impressive, diverse cast that is fully committed to their roles, the show packs quite a punch out of the gate in its first season.
Once Upon a Time is set in the modern day fictional town of Storybrook, where fairy tale creatures have been thrust into the real world and put under a curse by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla). She’s stripped them of their happy endings, rendering them unable to remember who they were in the alternate dimension of Fairy Tale Land. Their only hope is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), who is unknowingly the savior capable of breaking this hex. Upon birth, she’s magically transported through a portal to the real world just before the curse is enacted. The story explores an old fashioned battle of good versus evil as Emma’s son Henry (Jared Gilmore) attempts to convince his mom of her calling to break the curse. But the Evil Queen has other plans.
Kitsis and Horowitz lean heavily on their Lost storytelling style, ditching an exclusively linear timeline and taking many detours to flesh out the characters that inhabit Storybrook and Fairy Tale Land. Aside from a few creative liberties taken with the characters and their all-too-familiar exploits, you have a good idea of where the story is headed. However, seeing it all play out is where the fun is. Coming in with an appreciation of these fables pays off in dividends; it’s actually quite fun to be presented with a new character and then figure out who they are based on the contextual clues.
Of course, with befallen princesses and sword-wielding princes, there’s a cheesiness intrinsic to Once Upon a Time that is par the course for the subject material. It’s a good cheese though and the cast is pretty committed to every fanciful plotline and each sappy glance as if it were all really playing out.
Speaking of that cast, it’s admirable. Morrison finds her stride early on in the season and is a worthy protagonist to root for, especially when she teams up with Gilmore. Parrilla achieves great levels of wickedness as the Queen, but also adeptly navigates the more sympathetic elements of the character as well. Goodwin and Dallas are a bit tied down by the romance part of their characters’ storylines, but they have a lot more fun when they’re in Fairy Tale Land.
However, hands down, Robert Carlyle is the scene-stealer as Rumpelstiltskin. Doing double-duty as the sleazy, deal-making straw-spinner and his slippery real-life counterpart Mr. Gold, he successfully manages to add a mysterious, unpredictable element to each episode.
In terms of story, the juxtaposition of the dark real-world elements against those of the mythical realm works really well. If you’ve ever wondered what Grumpy the Dwarf or the Mad Hatter would be like in person, you’ll have a good time finding out.
No show is without its problems and Once Upon a Time has a few that plague it. The pace of the primary story arc is a tad slow, making the viewer tolerate a number of on-again, off-again twists for the Charming/Snow White romance. Some of the character explorations work better than others and the 22-episode season is understandably replete with some filler episodes. But in the last third of the season, Once really hits a good stride, reaching a crescendo right before the finale and even taking a daring creative risk to usher in the second season.
I’d also cite some of the action choreography as leaving something to be desired. I’m not saying that big-budget action movie style action is viable for network TV, but the infrequent fight scenes (and even standard running and jumping sequences) seemed especially slow and poorly executed. The show does a great job on building up to the inevitable action sequences that punctuate a story’s development, but it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed when that punctuation is more of a period rather than an exclamation point.
Video Quality on the Blu-ray Release
Once Upon a Time looks superb on Blu-ray. The hi-def presentation catches all the nuances of both the real and fairy tale dimensions: the deep greens of the enchanted forests, the vibrant details of the costumes as well as the realness of Storybrook . But be warned, the show makes heavy use of green screen shots, which are quite noticeable and egregiously bad in Blu-ray. It’s not the worst tradeoff however as the flexibility to artificially produce these fantastical sets allow the story to explore a good number of mystical characters in their natural environments.
The DTS audio track for this release is pristine and clearly captures the tricky variety of dialogue, action effects, musical score and ambient sounds. Again, the show features a myriad of different types of sets and scenes and the audio impressively immerses the viewer into this fantasy land.
ABC has included a good set of bonus features to round out the release and give diehard fans something to whet their appetite with before Season 2 premieres on September 30.
Once Upon a Time: Origins – Hosted by star Josh Dallas, this feature explores some of the tales that Once Upon a Time draws upon. If you need to brush up on your fairy tale knowledge and how the stories have evolved through the years, this feature provides a slick presentation that’s bound to teach you a thing or two (or ten).
Fairy Tales in the Modern World – If you want to know more about how the project was birthed, this is where you’ll find it. It’s pretty remarkable how Kitsis and Horowitz brought the show together (along with producer Jane Epsenson) and rounded together the caliber of talent that is involved.
Building Character – An in-depth look at how the Belle character (from Beauty and the Beast) was conceptualized, written and brought to the screen.
Welcome to Storybrook – A look into the fictional town in Maine and the town outside Vancouver that serves as its inspiration.
The Story I Remember… Snow White – The cast members share their memories of the Snow White tale.
The release also contains some intriguing episode commentaries form Kitsis, Horowitz; writer Jane Epenson, Morrison, Goodwin, Dallas, Carlyle and Parrilla. Also included is a standard set of outtakes as well as nine deleted scenes.
Overall, this is a great release if you’re looking to dive into some new, yet familiar entertainment. With a great cast and a creative team committed to great storytelling, Once Upon a Time is a great pickup on Blu-ray, especially as the second season nears its debut.