In fairy tales, a lot happens between “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after.” It is in between these two bookends where the conflicts, miseries, homicides and star-crossed lovers reside. Last year when I read that ABC would be premiering a new television series called Once Upon a Time, which was based on Grimm and other fairy tales, I was skeptical at best. Particularly because the series was airing on ABC (owned by Disney) and broadcast at an the early hour of 8:00 ET, I wondered whether the series would capture the dark moodiness of the original tales or even the intensity of the Disney animated features, which each managed to embody the essence of dark fantasy. (There is no more terrifying villain than Snow White’s Evil Queen in the Disney version.)
Before the series went on the air last October, I’d had the opportunity to interview writer/producer Jane Espenson, asking her the question as well. She assured me that despite the Disney brand and early hour on Sunday evenings, there would be plenty of atmosphere and dark fantasy to please. And she was certainly right!
ABC has released season one on Blu-ray and DVD, and with all the extras, and the chance to re-watch the first 22 episodes with no commercials, the set is a must-have for series fans. Although the series isn’t flawless, the writing is consistently good, and often excellent. (Espenson’s Beauty and the Beast re-imagining “Skin Deep” comes immediately to mind.)
Part of the series brilliance is in the way the creators mash up familiar fairy tales characters, putting together in unlikely (or sometimes very likely) alliances, or pitting them against each other. The characters exist in two worlds in Once Upon a Time. Currently residing in Storybrooke, Maine, banished to our modern world 28 years earlier by a curse imposed by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), the characters are trapped not knowing their true identities, and powerless to reclaim them. Their back-stories are revealed to us in flashback, taking us to Fairy Tale Land, a world of realms where magic resides in the hands of the powerful. But as Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) might say, “All magic comes with a price.”
But a rescuer, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), has come to Storybrooke, brought to the town by her son Henry (Jared Gilmore), abandoned at birth and given up for adoption to Regina, the town’s mayor (who’s really the Evil Queen). Problem is that Emma doesn’t believe (at all) in Henry’s claim that she is the long-lost daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas).
Like all residents of Storybrooke, Emma is not a happy soul. She believes she was abandoned as a child, and when she had Henry at the age of 18, she decided not to keep him. So she’s bitter and cynical; she loves Henry, wants him back, but is powerless against Regina to have him.
During the first season, we meet many classic characters: Snow White and Prince Charming (who are star crossed in Storybrooke), Cinderella, the seven dwarves, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), Little Red Riding Hood (with a very big twist), Hansel and Gretel and many more—and in ways you’ve never before seen them portrayed.
Although all the characters (all dual roles) are well played by the cast, the standouts are Carlyle and Parrilla. Although both play the series’ presumed villains, they each layer every performance with nuance and (sometimes unexpected) emotion. Carlyle in particular (as he often does) creates such a fully-realized character that you can’t help but deeply feel for his Rumplestiltskin, a man—a creature—of such loneliness, and who is in such anguish you really can’t hate him.