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I hope "Once Upon a Time" is more for adults than kids

October 18, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
ABC's "Once Upon a Time," which debuts this Sunday at 7 p.m., is starting to interest me in spite of myself.

Based on what I've seen thus far, the show will be very much a fairy tale crossed with a night time soap. That could be either very good or very bad, depending mainly on the writing and the acting.

The show is based on the premise that Snow White's Wicked Stepmother cast a spell that transported a bunch of fairy tale characters to a little town called Storybrooke where they are all different and where none of them can remember who they really are. For instance, Snow White has become Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin), an elementary school teacher; Prince Charming is a coma patient called John Doe (Josh Dallas); the Wicked Queen (Lana Parrilla) is now the town mayor, etc.

The Queen's spell has conveniently stopped time, so all the characters are still young and beautiful (can't have a 50-something Snow White now, can we? It would make the advertisers far too nervous.) The protagonist is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a 28-year-old woman who is the long lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, both of whom are apparently still 32.

Emma (Jennifer Morrison) ended up growing up elsewere, unaware of her fairy tale origins, and is now a bail bondswoman and quite the cynic. As a teenager Emma had a son and gave him up for adoption. The little boy, Henry (Jared Gilmore), was conveniently adopted by none other than the Evil Queen/Storybrooke Mayor and now suspects that something is rotten in Storybrooke. Henry tracks down Emma and tells her his suspicions, which she doesn't believe, but she takes him home to Storybrooke and stays to get acquainted with all of the odd characters.

The producers promise we will see stories set in the fairytale land as well as in present-day Storybrooke, which will let the actors play dual roles and will entail dressing up in long, billowy ball gowns and fighting with swords.

The Storybrooke dramas should be pretty soapy. A coma patient? A schoolmarm? I'm pretty sure I watched that on Days of Our Lives with my grandma a few decades ago.

I normally prefer hard core science fiction to fantasy. Fantasy as done by Hollywood can be overly precious and look an awful lot like the pink frills of the princess-obsessed preschool set: Barbie as Rapunzel. On the other hand, there have been some successful adult modern fairy tales in the last few years, including the films "Enchanted" and "Stardust" and various adaptations of fairy tales like the Red Riding Hood and Snow White tales. I just rewatched the 2007 Syfy miniseries "Tin Man," that is a dark, modern and very adult reimagining of "The Wizard of Oz." They're a revival of an old tradition since real fantasy, the kind that appeared in Grimm's Fairytales, is decidedly adult and the original stories had to be toned down a lot for the kiddies.

I'll like "Once Upon a Time" a whole lot better if it's like the original fairy tales, where Cinderella's wicked stepsisters get rolled off a cliff in a barrel filled with spikes and where Prince Charming woke Sleeping Beauty with a heck of a lot more than a kiss.

Only time will tell if it can live up to expectations.


And, after watching part of it Sunday night, I'd have to say my original preview is still pretty accurate. Morrison's bail bondsman character seems pretty hard-edged for the offspring of two fairy tale characters, to the extent that I had a hard time liking her. Emma Swan's fairy tale parents shoved her into a magical cupboard and sent her flying through the dimensions to evade the evil witch's curse. All she knows is that she was found abandoned on a freeway, was adopted but sent back at age three when her adoptive parents had a biological child, and grew up in various foster homes. The back story seems pretty unlikely, since hundreds of prospective adoptive parents would have been vying to adopt a white female infant without health problems, but maybe Emma's bad attitude was apparent from an early age. At this point she's more ugly duckling than beautiful swan.

Goodwin's Snow White and Dallas's Prince Charming look the part of a fairy tale pair, both in the fairy tale world and as schoolmarm and coma patient in Storybrooke. Goodwin is charming in her classroom, talking to kids who are building bird houses about how they are building homes for the birds and not mere structures. When she opened her classroom window I expected to see a bird land on her finger and start twittering along. Prince Charming is appropriately dashing in the sword fight scene and professing his undying love for Snow. But, though they are easier to like than their long-lost daughter, there is something jarring about all three characters being the same age. The eternally youthful Snow White is unknowingly teaching her 10-year-old grandson and gives him a book of fairy tales because he seems lonely.

As for Henry, so far he seems to be a plot device. He reads the fairy tales and comes to the unbelievable conclusion that they are all real; manages to track down his birth mother even though it was a closed adoption; and hates his adoptive mother, the Evil Queen/Mayor. Parrilla, as the villain, is by far the best character in the show. She plays both versions of her character -- cursing the fairy tale world because "this is MY happy ending" and threatening to destroy Henry's birth mother Emma if she tries to come back into his life -- chillingly well. The last minutes of the pilot shows Emma renting a room at a hotel in Storybrooke and deciding to stay for a week to investigate and meeting creepy Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin. Her decision starts time moving again; Henry looks out his bedroom window at the town clock that had been frozen for as long as he could remember and smiles as he sees the hand move forward.

Despite some of its flaws, the show looks intriguing enough to draw me back for another week. "Once Upon a Time" airs at 7 p.m. Sundays on ABC.


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