Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: "Once Upon a Time"

The difficulty with hearing that something you love is going to be translated to another medium is that you really can't predict what someone will find fascinating about the original work.  I for instance, find the atmosphere and allegories in Harry Potter to be what draws me to the stories (because at the end of the day Harry Potter is actually just a whiny teenager).  This worked out for me when the films came out because that's exactly what the filmmakers chose to concentrate on, rather than the specifics of the plotlines themselves.  And so it was that the announcement in 2008 that ABC had optioned Bill Willingham's brilliant comic series Fables I was both delighted and apprehensive.

Willingham's tale begins in New York, in the present and introduces us to the world of Fabletown.  It seems the storybook characters of our childhoods are indeed real and have been driven out of their fairy tale worlds by "The Adversary", a shadowy figure who has decimated and killed many fables and caused the exile of our heroes to present day New York.  What, for me, makes this story so successful is the ingenuity with which Willingham uses the stories we all know and love.  Snow White is the Assistant Mayor of Fabletown, and is divorced from Prince Charming due to infidelity (he went on to marry Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as we all know).  Beauty and the Beast have been married for centuries and every time they have a troubled spot in their marriage (read, Beauty starts to fall out of love with him) he begins to turn back into a Beast.  But this is just the backdrop, as the overarching storyline of their struggle to overcome the adversary is what eventually takes centre stage in this charming little series.  Perhaps a little difficult to pull off but with the right producers and behind the scenes staff, this one could have been fantastic.

Alas, they decided to go in another direction.

Three years later we find that ABC has also purchased, developed and take to an initial seven episodes the new series Once Upon a Time, based on a somewhat similar premise.  Unfortunately for me what this means is that fables (as a TV series anyway) will likely not see the light of day.  Especially because Once Upon a Time's initial rating were ABC's highest in three years.

Starring Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan, the series takes place both in a semi imagined past and in the present as we follow both the story book characters and their real world alter egos.  On the day of Snow White's marriage to Prince Charming the evil Queen arrives and places a curse on the lands.  Fearing for the life of her child, Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin) drags her husband to see Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) who, it seems, can tell the future.  He tells the couple that their child will survive the curse and that 28 years hence she will return to defeat the Queen and restore their land from the "place where there are no happy endings."  Sure enough, the Queen arrives and plunges the whole of fairytale land into our world, wiping the memories of all the characters such that they believe themselves to be normal everyday humans.  Only one person in the town of Storybrook, Maine knows the true identities of those present: Henry, Emma Swan's biological child.

And so the series begins with Henry locating and returning Emma to Storybrook, where she meets no less than seven amnesiac fantasy characters, living their lives without any knowledge of their magical pasts.  Conveniently the Queen's alter ego (Mayor Regina Mills) has adopted Emma's son Henry and this quickly puts the two women in opposition to one another.

Ultimately it feels like there's a little too much explanation needed to get this concept off the ground for me.  While I'm certainly aware that part of my difficulty with this concept comes directly from my disappointment that this is not Fables, I still think the show has a few problems it needs to work out.  Prejudices aside, as a lead character Emma Stone is not particularly sympathetic, though they do spend some time trying to make you feel bad that she's lonely (even though this is clearly a result of her sarcastic and bitter personality).  I'll probably give it a few more episodes but if they try to jumble too many characters into the story right away or keep pushing laboured mythology my way I may have to drop it.

Once Upon a Time airs Sunday nights at 8:00 pm ET/7:00pm CT on ABC (CTV in Canada)

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