Our reaction to the beginning of Once Upon a Time is as mixed as the show itself.
We begin in two very different places. The first is a classic fairytale setting involving the immediate aftermath of Prince Charming's kiss to wake the comatose Snow White. At their wedding, the evil queen, Snow's stepmother, delivers an ultimatum that she will destroy everything they have ever loved, in a monologue that makes Al Qaeda threat videos sound like nuanced arguments.
Later, as Snow gives birth to her daughter, the evil queen's curse takes effect, and the fairytale world is destroyed.
Meanwhile, in the real world, or at least the one that looks like ours does, at any rate, Emma Swan, a 28-year-old orphan bail bondsperson, comes home from a long night of recapturing a bond skipper to be confronted by Henry, the son she'd given up for adoption ten years earlier. Henry persuades Emma to drive him back to his home in Storybrooke, Maine, all the while telling her that the town is actually under a curse that stops time and renders the inhabitants unable to remember their histories as the classic fable characters we're so familiar with.
Despite not believing a word Henry says, Emma is struck by the boy's honesty and faith, as well as the behavior of his mother, the mayor and evil queen in disguise. The mayor threatens Emma if she attempts to rejoin Henry's life, but Emma promises Henry she will stay a week in Storybrooke. The episode ends with a clock that has been permanently stuck at 8:15 moving a single second.
The lengths to which ABC has gone to build a fantastical realm are truly astounding, with castles and fairies and the goblin-esque Rumpelstiltskin all coming to life with a very genuine quality. However, rather than deal with these characters as they originally appeared, every single effort has been made to connect them more with their contemporary Disney interpretations.
That's not necessarily a bad thing... after all, how many of us in this day and age met Cinderella and Pinocchio through the Disney films before finding them in the pages of a book? Still, the end result is somewhat forced, and rather than building a cohesive universe where the characters all interact and live, you feel as if you are watching George Lucas shove every cameo character he can into his Star Wars prequels.
We would like to give some well-deserved props to Lee Arenberg's Grumpy, though. Much as Bill Willingham did with Boy Blue in Fables, Once Upon a Time has taken an extremely minor character and made him into something that feels like it will be formidable indeed. His place as a trusted councillor of war in the fairytale world, and the fallen place he has in Storybrooke as a resident hood, already hint at some depth, and Arenberg plays what little screen time he has to the very hilt.
Maybe because he hasn't yet made it into a Disney film himself, Rumpelstiltskin, played by Robert Carlyle, also takes the series places outside the lines drawn by the House of the Mouse. At first a prisoner in the fairytale world, he bargains with Snow and Charming. In exchange for the name of their daughter, he tells them of the evil queen's plan and advises them to send her away via a magic wardrobe. So if you've ever wanted to write a Superman/C. S. Lewis crossover story, too late.
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In Storybrooke he is Mr. Gold, an extremely wealthy landowner who greets Emma at the town's bed and breakfast where he is landlord. The name Emma appears to ring a bell, but is not otherwise explored at this time.
Previews of the coming weeks promise us the real story behind the fables... something we're already sick of from overexposure to Gregory Maguire novels. Honestly, we'd prefer more forward character development than using rewriting history for shock value, but maybe we'll at least get something more than the one dimension they've given the evil queen. Lana Parrilla is doing her best with the role, but the lines she's given have her a mustache twirl away from tying Snow White to a set of railroad tracks.
A series' start is always rough. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a little hard to watch in the first season. Once Upon a Time has us invested enough to tune in next week, but there is going to have to be something more to keep us reading until the end.
Once Upon a Time airs Sunday 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central.