Yikes. Christ, this show. Okay. I think I’m ready. Let’s do this.
Once Upon A Time premiered last night on ABC at 8/7c. The show’s creators are Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, both executive producers and writers on Lost. Jane Espenson is a co-executive producer on Once and Damon Lindelof is a consulting producer. The pilot was written by Horowitz and Kitsis.
Okay! We open on a calligraphied title card that presents an inauspicious beginning to this show:
“There was an enchanted forest filled with all the classic characters we know. Or think we know. One day they found themselves trapped in a place where all their happy endings were stolen. Our world. This is how it happened.”
Annoying, right? We’re then treated to the very familiar conclusion to the Snow White fable. Snow White, played by a hideously bewigged Ginnifer Goodwin, is dead in a glass coffin in a sun-dappled forest surrounded by seven grieving dwarfs, and Prince Charming (a totally forgettable Josh Dallas) rides up on his noble steed and macks her back to life. But this customary happy ending is just the beginning of the story! Their wedding, attended by hundreds of other fairy tale creatures, is interrupted by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla). We can tell she’s evil because she’s wearing pants. Well, and shoulder pads. She lays some incredibly vague curse on them: “Stuff will happen and you will hate it! Later! I’m going to start working on it tomorrow.” She really said that last part.
So, essentially, the Evil Queen cursed the fairy tale creatures into modern day Storybrooke (no really), Maine, where time has stopped. Evidently Snow and Charm’s unborn baby Emma is the only person who can break the curse (they learn this from a shrieky Rumpelstiltskin, played by Robert Carlyle at his most irritating), so they send her off into the unknown to protect her from the curse. The unknown turns out to be our world, where she grows up to be a remarkably attractive bailbondsperson played by Jennifer Morrison. Her full name is Emma Swan because this show is THE WORST. After she, rocking a hot pink mini-dress and stacked stilettos, collars a fugitive, she goes home and blows out a candle on her sad little cupcake because she’s a friendless orphan, but friendless orphans have birthdays too. After she blows out the candle, the doorbell rings, and it’s her son that she gave up for adoption ten years ago, Henry (Jared Gilmore). Henry is just so fucking precocious.
Apparently he’s been adopted by the Evil Queen–now going by the name of Regina–and they live in Storybrooke, and he wants Emma to come back and break the curse. He knows about all of this because he read it in a very badly illustrated book. Nobody in Storybrooke knows that they’re fairy tale creatures. (Presumably Regina does, since it’s her curse? Unclear.) Snow White is now a thankfully wigless elementary school teacher named Mary Margaret Blanchard, because THIS SHOW IS THE WORST. Prince Charming is an anonymous coma patient. Jiminy Cricket is Henry’s shrink. Rumpelstiltskin is a character similar to Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, named Mr. Gold because, you know, this show is the worst. The big bad wolf, I think, is now the sheriff, working under Regina as the mayor, because making Snow White the mayor would be ripping off Fables too ostentatiously. All of this information, plus lots more that I can’t be bothered to parrot right now, is given to the audience within the first ten minutes or so of the pilot. Yep. This is definitely from the writers of Lost.
The dialogue is awful. I really wish Espenson had written this episode; despite the fact that the premise would still be ridiculously unwieldy, stripping it of its awkward, sugary dialogue would make the pilot far more palatable. Jennifer Morrison, who really is quite good in the episode, responds with incredulity to all the tedious exposition Henry hands her, with lots of “Seriously?!” and “That’s what you’re going with?” It’s like the writers expect her snarky skepticism to start pinch hitting for ours, and all of a sudden we’re going to buy this shit.
The modern scenes with Emma, Regina, Henry and Mary Margaret are pretty rough. And they’re interspersed with the fairy tale scenes, which are excruciating. The writers transform hackneyed, crap dialogue into hackneyed, crap fairy tale speak simply by making it sound a bit more formal: “You have no idea of what she’s capable!” Of course it makes sense for fairy tale creatures to lack dimension and nuance, but as we’re supposed to be rooting for these characters, I have to wish Prince Charming weren’t so milquetoast and Snow White weren’t so saccharine. She’s also blatantly stupid. When she and the Prince go to visit the imprisoned Rumpelstiltskin to gain information about the curse, the guard tells them in no uncertain terms to never tell Rumpelstiltskin their names, or he will have power over them. Snow, in all due haste and oblivious to the fact that Rumps is practically salivating for it, tells him the name of her unborn daughter. Moron! Thank god for the terrible wig. I have a long-standing drinking game that consists of my drinking any time I see a terrible wig on a crappy fantasy show (this started with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, wherein exists an entire planet of terrible wigs), and Once Upon A Time gave me plenty of drinking material. One other scene saved the fairy tale segments from being a total entertainment loss–when Prince Charming is running down the castle corridors with infant Emma in his hand, swordfighting the Evil Queen’s minions. A man swordfighting in a puffy shirt while carrying an infant makes for boundless hilarity, trust.
My main qualm of many: the Evil Queen’s plan is just so ambiguous and ineffective. As her curse finally comes to pass and the fairy tale world starts swirling in sparkly smoke, Snow White asks where they’re going. The Queen replies, “Some place horrible! Absolutely horrible! Where the only happy ending will be MINE!” This horrible place is a picturesque little town, and her awesome happy ending is that she gets to be stuck there too, as the unpopular mayor with a precocious son who hates her. Time doesn’t change in this leafy little hamlet, so everyone stays young and hot. And what if a normal person (not Emma, as she’s fated to visit) wanders into Storybrooke? Do they stay the same age, too? What is the point to all of this? If the fairy tale creatures don’t know that they’re fairy tale creatures, if they don’t even know what happened to them or remember how fantastically romantic their lives used to be, how is this even punishment? They just think they’re teachers and shrinks and sheriffs living in a quaint little town, staying forever young. THAT IS THE WEAKEST CURSE EVER.
And the kid, you guys. The kid. Henry is this twee, saucer-eyed little grown-up who says things to Emma like, “You don’t have to be hostile. I know you like me, I can tell. You’re just pushing me away because I make you feel guilty.” Aughh! I found one scene interesting, though–after Emma returns Henry to Regina, she starts hinting that she’d like to see more of him. Regina is well within her rights to remind Emma that Emma herself asked for a closed adoption, and for the past ten years it’s been Regina who’s changed the diapers and soothed the fevers and endured the tantrums. Then Emma actually has the absolute gall to ask, “Do you love him?” Yes, the biological mother who asked for a closed adoption and has spent a grand total of three hours with this kid asks the adoptive mother if she loves her son. When Regina tells Emma to blow out of town “or I will destroy you if it’s the last thing I do,” I am fully on her side. I know that she’s the Evil Queen and she doesn’t actually seem to love Henry, but really. Fuck you, Emma. What an incredibly offensive, presumptuous question to ask.
So, after this heated exchange, Emma decides to stay in Storybrooke (at “Grandma’s House,” an inn run by Little Red and her granny) for one week, and the clock that never moves ticks forward one minute. I honestly have no idea how the writers expect to bring new audiences up to speed during each week’s “previously, on Once Upon A Time” spiel. You see how long this post is! The show is endlessly, needlessly convoluted, with dozens of twisty little plot points that I can already guarantee you will not be tidily resolved when the time comes. This is a Lost joint, yo. Observant viewers, prepare to be frustrated! My fear is not that this show is too complex for us to follow. We’re plenty smart. My fear is that, much like Lost, it’s already too complex for the writers to follow.
All that bitched, I’m trying to keep my bias in check. After all, even though this is precisely what networks are expected to do, I try to never judge a show by its pilot. Maybe now that all of this tiresome exposition has been not-so-handily dispensed, the second episode could be sort of fun. Or maybe we should say screw this show. Henri, Devin–what do you say?
The pilot of NBC’s Grimm (which I’ve already watched and–spoiler alert!–also hated) airs Friday night, so next week’s TV Talk will combine these two modern fairly tale clusterfucks into one massive bitch session. Readers, did you watch Once Upon A Time? Am I being too hard on it, or should we blow this popsicle stand?