Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time (ABC, 2011)

Once Upon a Time is a show that doesn’t know what to do with itself.  It is trying to be several shows at once – a strange combination of Lost and TruBloodby way of Stephen King. The problem is, you can’t do sexy, goofy, over the top camp and a dark fantasy mystery at the same time. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Once Upon a Time logo

The pilot is a campy, too serious mess. The “real-world” sequences were fine and, over enthusiastic 10-year old aside, often created a good sense of mystery and tension. That feeling wouldn’t stay with you, however, for you could count on it being dissipated by a campy, terrible fantasy sequence with in a few minutes. Those sequences are inexcusably awful – typical, television fantasy trash. For a show with this budget, cast, and creative pedigree such low quality television is unacceptable. Often watching the pilot of Once Upon a Time was like watching an episode of Lost interspersed with sequences from an fairy tale infected episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The episode could have jettisoned most of those scenes and lost little.

Despite the awfulness of the pilot, this show has some potential. The cast is strong – especially the Wicked Step-Mother and the dude playing Rumpelstiltskin as a serial killer. The Wicket Step-Mother has the right mix of the sinister and the sensitive and “Mr. Gold” was appropriately disturbing. I still like Jennifer Morrison a lot, despite the efforts of the last season of How I Met Your Mother to make me feel otherwise. The 10-year old boy needs to rein it in it, but he is far from the worst child actor on television. The executive producers of this show are, obviously, survivors of the Lost writers room. Which means they know how to write a good science fiction/fantasy tinged mystery and create compelling and interesting characters – even if they don’t know how to make an ending really work.

To make this show work going forward, what’s needed is to make a choice. Do they want to go the love-it-or-leave it campy or love-it-or-leave it fantasy mystery route. These are mutually incompatible creative directions, as the pilot clearly shows. The raw materials of Once Upon a Time are solid. It is in the hands of the writers as to whether this show will succeed or end up on the growing pile of failed shows from the 2011-2012 season.

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