Blogging about TV is a funny thing. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to write and have no trouble at all expressing it. Other times, I have no clue what to write and have a hard time putting my disjointed thoughts into words. But on rare occasions, I come away from a TV show not knowing what to think at all, but knowing exactly why I don’t know what to think. That’s exactly how I feel about ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

On paper, Once Upon a Time sounds absolutely ridiculous. Its premise is that all of our beloved fairy tale characters were real and were living happy lives until an evil queen (Lana Parrilla) banished them to live in present-day America with no knowledge of their previous existence. However, a young boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore), the biological son of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming’s (Joshua Dallas) daughter, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), knows about what the queen did and attempts to get Emma to help him lift the queen’s curse. Understandably, I felt skeptical that a premise like this could be executed with any degree of quality.

Luckily, Once Upon a Time pulled it off with some success, delivering an enjoyable – if slightly clunky – pilot episode. What gives me pause, though, is that I have no idea what the series looks like going from here. If it sticks to the aspects of the pilot that worked, it could really be a fun show. But if it sticks to those that didn’t, then it could be a catastrophe in the making.

When I write about television, I often talk about the importance of world building. If the show can’t create a universe – or in the case of a show like Fringe, multiple universes – that I want to spend time in each week, then I won’t remain a viewer for long. But if there’s one thing that Once Upon a Time does well, it’s world building, both in creating the stylized fairy tale world of the past and in creating the quaint old town of Storybrooke, Maine, where the present-day scenes take place.

The fairy tale world seems to have leaped straight out of a page in a story book and onto a television screen. It’s depicted in gorgeous detail, with lavish costumes and sets. Big, sweeping, cinematic shots establish the size and scope of the kingdom in which the characters used to live. By contrast, everything in Storybrooke is shot close-up, as if to generate the sensation of being trapped. The buildings look as if they belong in the kind of quaint New England town that fortysomething couples visit when they want to get away for a weekend, but the colour palette is anything but cheery, instead steeped in dull hues, engendering the feeling that things aren’t as they should be.

The characters in the past aren’t given much depth, unfortunately confined by their fairy tale archetypes, but in the present day, they all have an additional layer of complexity. In our world, the evil queen is the mayor of Storybrooke, Regina Mills, and while she’s certainly evil, the show makes a point of the fact that she did raise and take care of Henry, whom she adopted as a son of her own. In the present day, Snow White is a kind schoolteacher named Mary Margaret Blanchard, and the fact that she helps Emma, but not the mayor, find Henry points to a sense of distrust between her and the mayor, which could yield some meaty dramatic material in the future.

So there’s a nifty – if totally ridiculous – premise, not one but two fully-realized worlds, and a bunch of potentially interesting characters. What’s not to love? For starters, the acting isn’t great. The performances of Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle (who plays Rumpelstiltskin) are a few shades too hammy, and they don’t mesh at all with the other performances. Joshua Dallas is too stiff as Prince Charming, and Jennifer Morrison is unconvincing as a tough-girl bail bondswoman. Jared Gilmore is somewhat hamstrung by the dialogue he’s given, which isn’t at all age-appropriate, even for a precocious character, but nonetheless, he has to shoulder some of the blame for not being able to make it seem believable. And I’ve never liked Ginnifer Goodwin in anything I’ve seen her in. This is no exception. Her tendency to overact is on full display here, especially when she’s playing Snow White. I’d say that maybe there were some weird directorial decisions being made or here, or perhaps the cast just needs a few episodes to gel, but there’s no tentativeness in the performances here. All the actors seem confident that they know what they’re doing, which leads me to believe that the acting won’t improve. That’s an issue, but I can get past it. The acting isn’t terrible, by any means, but let me put it this way: I’d be nuts if I thought that anybody was giving an award-worthy performance here.

The other problems I have with Once Upon a Time are more speculative in nature. The show has me rooting for Emma to set everything right, which, don’t get me wrong, is a good thing. But I fear that I’m rooting for Emma for the wrong reasons. I want Emma to succeed because the show did a good job of establishing Henry’s plight. I don’t really want to return to the fairy tale world, as beautifully filmed as it may be. There might be some thrills to be gained for a few weeks by revisiting old fairy tales with new twists, but I’m not confident that the show will be able to rise above the strict character types defined in the pre-existing tales. It didn’t here, and I couldn’t find any particular reason to care about Prince Charming, Snow White, and their “happy ending.”

But more importantly, I have no idea what the hell this show looks like going forward. Is each week a new fairytale? A new puzzle for Emma and Henry to solve? A bunch of soapy drama set in a fictional New England town? If the show is going to focus on Emma’s quest in the present day and only use the fairy tale world as a device for illuminating what’s going on in the present, then I think we have a fun show on our hands, even if it could be a little formulaic. However, if the show is going to focus a lot on its fairy tale aspect, then it’s going to need to do a much better job at making me care about the fairy tale world. That’s going to be an uphill battle. There are absolutely no stakes to any storyline that happens in the fairy tale world because I already know how it ends: the queen puts a curse over the kingdom. If the show wants me to care about the fairy tale world, then that world is going to have to contain more secrets and twists than were apparent in the pilot.

The other problem is that this show has a finite premise. Once Emma restores the fairy tale world, then the show is over, unless additional complications are introduced. In all likelihood, they will be – this show comes from former Lost writers, after all – but they’re going to have to make sense in the context of the story; they can’t just be pulled out of the writers’ collective ass at the last minute in order to extend the narrative beyond its natural stopping point.

Anyway, those are all concerns for the future. The pilot episode of Once Upon a Time was solid but unspectacular. However, it piqued my interest because it demonstrated a lot of potential. Once Upon a Time could end up having a compelling, twisty, reality-bending narrative, or it could end up in the crapper by episode five. It’s too early to tell, which is why I don’t exactly know what to think about the show. But I do know one thing, and it’s the highest compliment I can pay the show: when the pilot was over, I really, really wanted to see a second episode, badly. That’s partly because I’m curious about what a second episode of this show will look like, structurally speaking, but it’s also because I’m genuinely intrigued by the premise as it was presented in the pilot, and I hope that the people behind this show can pull it off. If not, then my “happily ever after” will involve tuning out of this show.

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