The 2011-12 season has thus far not been a great one for new drama. The networks took a couple of high-concept swings (“Terra Nova,” “Pan Am”) and have produced a few solid performers (“Unforgettable,” “Person of Interest”), but on the whole nothing has really broken through and become the show to watch.
“Once Upon a Time,” which premieres Sunday (Oct. 23) on ABC, may or may not change that. It’s flawed, to be sure — we wonder about how it could sustain a long-term run, and one part of the show isn’t as interesting as the other. But we have to give it points for ambition: No other new show this fall is attempting to tell a bigger story, and we’re hoping the rough patches smooth out and it fulfills the potential that’s there in its very strong cast and premise.
The show is one of two premiering in the next week (NBC’s “Grimm” is the other) that use fairy tales as their jumping-off point, but otherwise are pretty different. Whereas “Grimm” is essentially a crime show with a Grimm’s Fairy Tales overlay, “Once Upon a Time” delves into the lives of characters we’ve known pretty much our entire lives, from Snow White and the Evil Queen to Geppetto and Jiminy Cricket.
At the beginning of Sunday’s premiere, the queen (Lana Parrilla, “Swingtown,” “Miami Medical”) puts a curse on all of fairy-tale land, taking away everyone’s happy ending and banishing them to “somewhere horrible” — our world, where they all inhabit the town of Storybrooke, Maine, and none of them, save the queen herself, remembers their former selves.
Thus Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, “Big Love”) is now lonely teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard, and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), having been near death himself when the curse descended, is a John Doe in a coma. Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory) is Ruby, a rebellious, and not so little, young woman chafing under her granny’s roof. You get the idea.
The only other person in Storybrooke who knows what’s really going on is Henry (Jared Gilmore, “Mad Men”), the mayor’s adopted son. He seeks out his biological mother, the tough, standoffish Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is in fact Snow White and Prince Charming’s own daughter, whom they magically whisked away before the curse set in and who is rather skeptical of Henry’s story.
But she also takes a liking to the boy and feels obligated to get him home, so she heads to Storybrooke and slowly, maybe, starts to buy into what Henry’s saying — namely, that she can break the curse and return everyone’s happy endings. At any rate, she’s invested enough in her newfound son to stick around for a little while.
“Once Upon a Time” was created by “Lost” veterans Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and the influence of their former show is plain: The characters are trapped by a device not of their own making. Episodes jump back and forth between this world and the fairy-tale world. In the two episodes ABC sent out for review, there are far more questions than answers.
Chief among those questions for me is just what the queen/mayor is getting out of the curse. Yes, she’s powerful and seemingly wealthy in this world, but she doesn’t seem especially happy about having made other people so unhappy. It comes off as though she didn’t quite think her curse all the way through.
And because most of the real-world versions of the character are blind to their true natures, they’re also a lot less interesting than their fairy-tale selves. Everyone seems to have a vague sense of something being not quite right, but they’re also unable to pinpoint what’s wrong, which can be a little frustrating.
As such it falls to Morrison to move the story along in this world, and fortunately for the audience she’s able to pull it off. She gives a confident, grounded performance that helps keep the show from feeling too fantastical, and her rapport with Gilmore is a big plus too.
Given the cast and the people involved behind the scenes — the writing staff also includes “Buffy”/”Battlestar Galactica”/”Torchwood” veteran Jane Espenson and “Life Unexpected” creator Liz Tigelaar — we’re more optimistic than not that “Once Upon a Time” will find its way. But if it doesn’t, at least it will go down swinging.
“Once Upon a Time” premieres at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.