October 31, 2011

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “Once Upon A Time”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.

Previously… on ONCE UPON A TIME:  Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is a Boston bounty-hunter who’s celebrating a solitary birthday when her doorbell rings and 10-year old Henry (Jared Gilmore) turns up, announcing that he’s the child she gave up for adoption after his birth.  What’s more, he has a crazy story for her about Storybrooke, the town where he lives as the adopted son of Regina, the Mayor (Lana Parrilla):  it seems that everyone there was originally a fairy-tale character, and the Mayor, who was the Evil Queen of that universe, cursed them all by bringing them to modern-day Maine with no memory of who they were.  So Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the kindly schoolteacher, Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is the avaricious landlord, and so on.  Also?  Also Emma herself is the child of Snow White and Prince Charming, the baby who was the only one saved from the curse, and also the only one who can rescue the townspeople and bring them back to their real identities.  Emma doesn’t really believe any of this, of course–although we in the audience know it’s true, because we’ve been watching the fairy-tale universe in flashbacks–but she does care about Henry, and she doesn’t trust Regina.  So she decides to stay in Storybrooke for a while, much to Henry’s delight and Regina’s scheming concern.

Episode 2:  The second episode, written by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and directed by Greg Beeman, picks up right where the pilot left off.  It underscores what’s ingenious and fun and also what’s problematic about the show’s unique concept.  The modern day Storybrooke storylines are coming together nicely, with clever revelations about who the local characters really are.  This week we met the Enchanted Mirror, who in modern-day Storybrooke is the local newspaper editor (Giancarlo Esposito, for some of us eternally AKA Gus Fring), and Jiminy Cricket is the local shrink (Rafael Sbarge).  There was also a nice vulnerable moment for Emma, who knows Snow White is supposed to be her fairy-tale mother, when she finds herself, against logic, drawn to Ginnifer Goodwin’s sweet and seemingly youthful schoolteacher.  Plus Lana Parrilla is terrifically evil as Regina (ah, for an ABC crossover where Regina could meet Madeleine Stowe’s Victoria from Revenge), and she and Morrison are fine adversaries.  There were also some tantalizing hints about Rumplestiltskin having obtained Henry for Regina in Phoenix, which presumably will lead us to one of the show’s central mysteries: the identity of Henry’s father.

But Once Upon A Time insists on its dual-universe structure, so we also got flashbacks to the Evil Queen’s implementation of her curse on the fairy-tale kingdom.  This section of the show allows for some impressive sets and fine (especially for TV) CG, but it doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know, and it stops the drama cold–we already know how that story ends.  The point of this week’s fantasy sequences was to show just how ruthless the Queen is:  she had to murder her own father to make the spell work.  But since the entire series is based on the Queen/Regina’s evil, that wasn’t exactly an open question, and certainly not worth the running time it was allotted in the episode.  

The Once Upon A Time premiere had superb ratings, so unless things collapse, it will have a back order soon enough and a full season to figure out the balance of its stories.  It’s still a work in progress that needs to find a dramatically urgent purpose for its elaborate flashbacks.  But there’s no question that it’s got a compelling idea at its center, and plenty of talent attached.  A happy ending could still be in the offing.
Original VerdictIf Nothing Else Is On…
Pilot + 1:  The Spell Is Starting To Take Effect

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."