March 5, 2012

THE SKED @ PALEYFEST 2012: “Once Upon A Time”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME is one of the few no-question-about-it hits of the current television season, and the gathering at today’s PaleyFest session, while enormously enthusiastic, was less raucous and more comfortably pleased than last night’s crowd for Community.  (If Community‘s fans sometimes had the air of an Occupy rally that had actually won something, the faithful for Once were more like the fans of a sports team that usually makes it to the playoffs.)  Even moderator Matt Webb Mitovich was hard-pressed to treat an upcoming Season 2 as anything other than a certainty, and creator/showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz made it clear with their responses that they’re already looking forward to the continuing arc of a successful show.

All season long, Once Upon A Time has very cleverly–much more so than some of us expected–accomplished the trick of creating 2 overlapping and parallel universes for its story.  One is a fairy tale kingdom where Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), Beauty (guest star Emilie De Raven) & the Beast (who happens to be Rumpelstiltskin),Jiminy Cricket (Rafael Sbarge), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and of course an Evil Queen (Lana Parilla) are among the characters living their fantastic lives.  The other is Storybrooke, Maine, where it turns out that the Queen, now the Mayor (Parilla again) has cursed all the fairy tale inhabitants to a dreary, change-less everyday existence without any happy endings.  But all that begins to shift when the somewhat mysterious Emma (Jennifer Morrison) comes to town, having discovered she’s the birth mother of the Mayor’s adopted son (Jared Gilmore), who has a book of fairy tales that’s convinced him of what’s actually going on.  The ingenuity of the conceit is that each episode cuts back and forth between the worlds, and what happened in the fairy tale land informs the characters and storylines in Storybrooke.
The potential pitfalls on such a complicated, multilayered project are infinite, and while the show has been dramatically absorbing and lots of soapy/supernatural fun so far, eventually things will have to be explained and concluded–making it a little scary that Kitsis and Horowitz hail from Lost, since we all know how well that one worked out.  For now, though, it’s a well written and performed weekly pleasure.  (And, incidentally, despite pre-season comparisons, in an entirely different league from NBC’s far less ambitious Grimm.)
The PaleyFest panel began with a screening of tonight’s episode, which mostly bypasses the main series mythology to tell the story of Leroy, a janitor in Storybrooke but better known as dwarf Grumpy in his other identity.  Although there are a few B story steps forward on the Queen/Mayor’s plot against David, the town’s Prince Charming, the episode is more charming than essential.  (It does, however, provide a nice overlap of Once Upon‘s land with the Whedonverse, as Grumpy’s true love is played by Whedon vet Amy Acker.)  The first act of next week’s episode was also screened, enough to let us know that it will center on waitress Ruby (Meghan Ory) and a Big Bad Wolf.
In the Q&A, Kitsis and Horowitz provided little in the way of meaningful spoilers.  (Remember, they’re from Lost.)  The most specific tidbit was that both Charming and Rumpelstiltskin will find their way to Jiminy’s Storybrooke psychologist’s couch this season, and that Barbara Hershey will appear as the Queen’s mother.  Apart from that, it was all fairly hint-y:  for example, before the season is over, we’ll know why the Queen hates Snow White and what the mototcycling stranger is doing in Storybrooke.  We may also not have seen the last of the Sheriff, dead in Storybrooke but not in fairy tale land.
The cast, almost all of whom attended the panel (the only notable absence was young Jared Gilmore), and all of whom have steady paychecks to look forward to for quite a while, seemed to be having a good time, although from the sound of it, Vancouver (much rain, cold winds and snow) has its limitations as a shooting location.  There was also some discussion of the “green stage” used to accomplish the show’s seemingly vast sets in the fantasy sequences:  the actors stand on an almost barren soundstage, only able to know what the room around them looks like by checking the director’s video monitor that has the pre-vis artwork (that will later be added via CG) loaded on.  It’s apparently all too easy to walk through invisible walls–which, as it happens, is a worthwhile metaphor for the risks of serialized and mythological TV writing, as well.  Only the future will tell if Once Upon A Time can satisfyingly stay within its boundaries..
Nest up at PaleyFest, the season’s other unarguable hit:  New Girl.  

Previous PaleyFest 2012 Columns:



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."