The pilot episode of fantasy-drama Once Upon a Time, ABC’s biggest debut in five years, opens as Prince Charming and Snow White are about to reach their happily ever after. Unfortunately, the Evil Queen has other plans. She vows to destroy their happiness so she can have her own happily ever after, trapping them and the other fairy tale characters in a place where there are no happy endings—our world.
Created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who worked together previously on Lost, Once Upon a Time contains several Lost allusions in the pilot episode and these allusions are expected to continue as a theme throughout the series. The pilot incorporates two timelines at once, giving the show a feeling that’s definitely similar to Lost, and the transitions between modern time and the Enchanted Forest are masterfully incorporated. As we meet Snow White and Prince Charming of fairy tale fame, we also meet the seemingly normal Emma Swan of the real world—a tough as nails bail bond collector who’s got a soft, sensitive side as well.
The changing timelines make this show quite epic. It switches back and forth between the Enchanted Forest and the real world at just the right times, adding a lot of depth to the story and bringing both storylines together in a way that increases the suspense. As we alternate between the two, we start to unravel the connection between Emma and the fairy tales.
Unlike some pilots, this one is of a standard episode length. Despite that, it doesn’t feel too rushed. While we don’t spend a huge amount of time getting to know any of the Disney-esque characters, they are still quickly understandable. Unfortunately, though understandable, most of the characters feel a little flat. The only characters who truly feel believable are Emma, ten-year-old Henry, and Rumpelstiltskin. Fortunately, the story seems to be centering around Emma and Henry, and in spite of the other flat characters, the story was engaging.
There are a few side characters worth mentioning as well. In Rumpelstiltskin, Robert Carlyle demonstrates again his talent in his portrayal of twisted characters. Red Riding Hood’s Granny delights me for the brief time she is on screen, and Red Riding Hood herself has a brief but epic appearance. And the Evil Queen is not just fairy tale evil; she is very evil, but in a more realistic, more earthly and subtle way, especially during the real world timeline.
The less than stellar acting in no way detracts from the scintillating dialogue throughout the show—“I’m sorry that my heart attack interfered with your plans to sleep your way down the Eastern seaboard!” Nor does it impact the epic feel of some scenes. For example, I’ve never seen another Prince Charming as impressive as this show’s version, who duels several armored evil henchmen at once, himself unarmored, while cradling his newborn daughter. That scene, in fact, completely makes up for his looks, which, while not bad, aren’t as strikingly handsome as you’d expect in a Prince Charming.
Overall, the writing is delightful, though there are a few weak scenes as well. The scene where Snow White gives birth bothers me more than any other. It isn’t believable, though it is very cliched, and that combined with the weak acting makes what should have been a very moving scene simply annoying.
There are a number of very emotional, touching moments that more than make up for the weak acting and the weak scenes, though. Henry’s schoolteacher explains the appeal of reading fairy tales beautifully. “What do you think stories are for? These stories, the classics. There’s a reason we all know them. They’re a way for us to deal with our world. A world that doesn’t always make sense.” She goes on to say what might be, in my opinion, the most profound line in the episode: “Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing.”
There is a lot of focus on the themes of family and adoption. And of course, any fairy tale-inspired story would be incomplete without true love. True love’s first kiss is a thing of magic and power. Unfortunately, though a kiss saved Snow White from the poisoned apple-induced sleep, there was no magical first kiss to save Prince Charming later.
Once Upon a Time was filmed in Vancouver, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful—especially in the Enchanted Forest, though also in the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where most of the real world events occur. The music is lovely and well suited to the show. And the ending scene gives me chills! It is the perfect way to end the pilot, setting up perfectly to lead into the next episode, which I am definitely watching.
This show has great potential. If, like me, you have a soft spot for new versions of familiar fairy tales, or if you enjoy a show with clever one-liners, and you’re willing to overlook the side characters feeling a little flat, I wholeheartedly recommend you give Once Upon a Time a try.