“Once Upon a Time” is an OK idea, one we in a fashion already saw with the 2007 Disney film Enchanted — what happens when fairy tale characters are transported from the pages of a story book to the harsher streets of the real world? Only in “Once,” the characters don’t know they’re characters, stuck in modern times away from their former fantastical homes. They also are at the mercy of creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, producers on “Lost” who have brought the concept of alternate realities and timelines and general confusion with them. Half the narrative is spent in the storybook realm, which is Shrek-esque in that it is filled with characters from a variety of stories, showing us in the pilot how they came to be cursed with “something horrible, absolutely horrible”: life in Maine! The town of Storybrooke, actually, where the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) had all the characters sent and where time stands still. Enchanted did it right — not spending much time in fairy tale world and having its characters (and thus actors) in on the joke, embracing the silliness of the concept. Instead, “Once” splits its characters in half: Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) in fairy world is school teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard; the Queen is the town’s mayor, Regina Mills; Snow’s Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) is a patient in the hospital under the name John Doe; etc. In both worlds, they’re a bit boring. There’s only so much fun in figuring out which fairy tale character each Storybrooke resident is — it’s not as if they know, or spend their time like I have wondering if the fairy tale world still exists on a different plane, just uninhabited. It could be worth our time to watch “Once Upon a Time” to find out, but unlike most fairy tales, this one has no clear ending in sight.
The one person who has figured out that Storybrooke residents actually are characters is 10-year-old Henry Mills (Jared Gilmore), yet another hyper-verbal, too-smart child who is more mature than the adults around him. He takes a bus to Boston to find Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), his birth mother who gave him up for adoption. It’s her 28th birthday, and she’s celebrating alone after having busted a criminal during her day job as a bail bondswoman. She doesn’t doubt that she’s Henry’s mother, but she takes him back to Storybrooke and his adoptive mother, Regina, all the while listening to Henry’s claims that the characters in the book of fairy tales he is carrying are real — and that Emma is in the book, too.
In fairy tale world, after Prince Charming kisses a comatose Snow White to revive her from the Queen’s poisoned apple, the two marry and have a baby, named Emma. Only the Queen has set a curse to take over the land, one that will give her own happy ending: making sure there aren’t any more happy endings. Prince and Snow think they are saving Emma from the curse by putting her in a wardrobe-tree-thing Geppetto (Pinocchio’s creator) made. Only it transports her to the side of a highway in the real world. Emma has a foster family until age 3 and then grows up an orphan. Now, her son has apparently figured out that her mother is Snow White, only whether he knows Snow is now his teacher, Mary Margaret, is unclear. Perhaps he should ask his psychiatrist, Archie Hooper (Raphael Sbarge), who also is Jiminy Cricket.
The Seven Dwarfs are around, and Geppetto I think runs the town jail. Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is in Storybrooke, too, as Mr. Gold, the man who “owns” the town. We see Granny (Beverley Elliott) giving him a wad of cash at her inn as Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory) looks on. Emma decides to stay there for a week to keep an eye on Henry, who keeps trying to run away from Regina. He’s a loner, like Emma, and Mary Margaret is the one who gave him the book of fairy tales, her telling Emma he needed a bit of hope in his life. “Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing,” she says.
But why did they end up in Maine? Did the Queen know when she set her curse that it would transport everyone to our reality? And does Regina know she is the Queen? (And how can characters such as Snow and Prince even have a kid if they are timeless — you would think no one would age in fairy tale land, right?) Rumpelstiltskin knew a bit about the curse, telling Snow her child was the key to unraveling it and that once Emma turned 28, a “great battle” to end it would begin. Henry tries to make Emma believe this as well, reiterating that the characters have been frozen in time for 28 years in Storybrooke without realizing it and are unable to leave. Even the clock on a downtown tower stands still — that is, until Emma decides to stick around. Hopefully the addition of time to the equation will bring about answers.
The real world in “Once Upon a Time” is interesting, as the characters can’t help but lead similar lives to the ones they don’t know they had in a different realm. Mary Margaret surely will fall for John Doe; Regina will be angry about it; Mr. Gold will likely target Emma for something. (Snow promised Rumpy the name of her unborn child in return for information about the curse.) Unfortunately, the stories of fairy tale realm are rather melodramatic, like most fairy tales are. To be watchable, “Once” should not go by the book but rather infuse the stories with either increased drama or levity. Either go “Game of Thrones” dark, or, say, “Pushing Daisies” whimsical. Hanging out in the middle simply won’t do. No one wants a mediocre story read to them at bedtime.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama.