Fairy tales are the new superheroes. Just as it was impossible to emerge from the last decade without swinging around New York on spiderwebs or coping with an Adamantium skeleton, it will be hard to weather 2012 without a few brushes with creatures of fanciful folklore.
Once Upon a Time
Season One Midseason
Sundays at 8 p.m.
Beginning Hollywood’s fairy-tale revival is ABC’s “Once Upon A Time,” which — seven episodes in — has finally found the spark that characterizes the classic tales it draws from.
It’s hard to discuss “Once Upon a Time” without acknowledging the clear influence of creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz’s prior work on a little show called “Lost.” There are Easter eggs in every episode, like a clock stuck at 8:15 and house numbered 108. For still-mourning Losties, there are even more obscure references, including Apollo bars and MacCutcheon whiskey, not to mention a guest appearance by Alan Dale. Widmore, you limey bastard.
The writers also borrow that series’ successful narrative elements, like the format: Each episode is a character study, unfolding in two universes — real life and the fantasy realm. The most engrossing part so far is the ongoing romantic tension between Snow White/Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin, “Something Borrowed”) and Prince Charming/David (Josh Dallas, “Thor”). Their story connects more to the overarching plot of fairy-tale characters defeating an evil queen, while figures like Jiminy Cricket/Archie (Raphael Sbarge, “CSI”) and Cinderella/who-the-eff-are-you (Jessica Schram, “Unstoppable”) add little to the storyline.
The make-believe realm in “Once Upon A Time” is a conglomeration of traditional tropes. The evil queen (Lana Parrilla, “Swingtown”) embodies every unnamed female antagonist, with a lot more savvy and a tad more cleavage. That regular crossovers like Cinderella and Snow White are friends and attend a ball together is difficult to digest at first, but now blends into this modern take on fairy tales.
Snow White started out too simpering and wistful to be likable, but she shows a surprisingly Robin Hood-esque streak of bad-assery by climbing trees, picking pockets and making shady deals with trolls. It’s a smart move on the writers’ part to update the outdated damsel-in-distress model. Parrilla is far more intimidating as the malicious mayor than as the evil queen. That might be why she’s all over Storybrook, manipulating and blackmailing everyone in sight, yet seldom seen in the storybook world. That realm is masterfully puppeted by the deliciously creepy Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle, “The Full Monty”), with just a hint of a Scottish accent. (Is that you, Desmond?)
A clear effort is made to ready the characters for the modern day and age, but details like Snow White’s French manicure detract from the authenticity of the original texts. Otherwise, the visuals are satisfactory enough that their limitations can be overlooked — after all, this isn’t HBO. As for the writing, a little modern adaptation doesn’t go amiss. In one instance, Snow White sardonically refers to her new acquaintance as “Prince Charming.” “I have a name, you know,” he retorts dryly.
Jennifer Morrison, finally believable as a blonde now that she’s out of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, initially played the only character with which the audience could sympathize. She does cynicism well as Snow White’s daughter, Emma Swan, and since she doesn’t have a fantasy alter ego, she roots the series in reality. She has a believable rapport with her biological son Henry (Jared Gilmore, “Mad Men”) and though she’s the protagonist, she doesn’t steal the show away from others.
At first it was easy to be skeptical about whether or not “Once Upon a Time” could succeed with its premise. In the pilot, Emma tells Henry, “Just because you believe something doesn’t make it true.” Maybe, but humans have an incurable tendency to try and prove otherwise. Now a third of the way through its first season, the show is pulling strong ratings and respect from critics. That initial skepticism has turned into a fervent desire to believe in these characters and step out of reality every week. And isn’t that the point of fairy tales?