September 28, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Once Upon A Time”



As everyone knows by now, Season 4 of ONCE UPON A TIME is aiming for a grand slam of corporate synergy, combining its Disney-owned network and Disney-owned TV series with Disney Animation’s biggest mega-buster in decades, the $1.3 Billion (and that’s just for ticket sales in theatres) Frozen.  As huge as it all might be, there’s also some risk in it for Once, which can easily be accused of making a money grab.  Beyond that, the show has never before included such a recent piece of pop culture in its own mythology, and will have to do so without the limitless wonders of CG animation, the vocal talents of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell and the rest of the movie’s cast, and without Frozen‘s ubiquitous songs.  (That last one gets a “probably,” though, considering that tonight’s season premiere featured a bit where Rumpelstiltskin and Belle danced to the theme song from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.)

In fact, the Frozen portion of the premiere, which was written by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and directed by Ralph Hemecker, was the weakest part of the hour, although in fairness it’s just getting started.  In Once‘s usual manner, it took place in two timeframes, with Elsa (played here by Georgina Haig) transported to present-day Storybrooke in the time-warp the Season 3 finale depicted, on the trail of her missing sister Anna (Elizabeth Lail), with flashbacks to a period after Frozen‘s main action, which had Anna heading off to what turned out to be the Enchanted Forest, shortly before her own wedding to Kristoff (Scott Michael Foster), in order to find out just what her and Elsa’s royal parents were seeking when they left the kingdom during the girls’ childhood and died in a shipwreck.  Kitsis and Horowitz did a fair job of keeping the live-action sisters close to their animated counterparts, but they didn’t spark to life the way they did on the big screen, and on a more mundane level, Once can’t afford A-level special effects on a TV budget, and the snow monster was rather lackluster (although a cameo by Kristoff’s troll surrogate grandpa was better-executed).

Instead, the most fertile area for drama on the series remained the redemption arc of former Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parrilla).  At the end of last season, Emma (Jennifer Morrison) unwittingly ruined Regina’s chance for romance with Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) by saving Maid Marian (Christie Laing) from her execution in the past at Regina’s orders, and bringing her back to the present–echoing the way Emma’s mother Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) had given birth to Regina’s evil in the first place by destroying her chance for happiness with a stableboy.  Very cleverly, Kitsis and Horowitz raised the specter of a tiresome return to Seasons 1 and 2 Regina, even bringing back her sentient mirror (Giancarlo Esposito) to plot Marian’s death.  But then the script zigged instead of zagging, and had Regina surprise even herself by saving Marian from the snow monster, keeping the character interestingly complex.  It appears this storyline will go in the promising direction of revealing just who wrote the book of fairy tales that set the entire story of Once Upon A Time in motion, one of the series’ fundamental mysteries, since Regina’s new brainstorm is to change the ending of her own story in the book.

The premiere’s third plotline, dealing with the repercussions of Emma’s romantic turn with Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), didn’t get much time in the hour, as Emma returned to the same kind of emotional dithering she’d done much of last season, and the last sequence of the episode introduced yet another narrative, in which Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), about to abandon his magic dagger for good, realized that he was in the presence of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat from Fantasia.

Once Upon A Time has had its ups and downs, but it’s one of the strongest and most consistently imaginative fantasy series on the air, one that does an exceptional job of always tying its mythology to the emotional stories of its characters.  Its cast is by now thoroughly expert at portraying the various timelines and versions of their roles, with Parrilla consistently the one most able to be both over-the-top and effectively subtle within a single episode.  Last spring’s ratings recovered from a slump, and at this point, the show’s biggest risk is falling victim to the repetitiveness of age–and the corporate demands of its owners.  Has Once Upon A Time, like several of its characters, sold its soul for worldly success?  That story is just now being written.


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."