Unexpectedly Enchanting: ‘Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season’

Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Snow White walk into a bar for a girl’s night out. Only they don’t remember who they really are. Sounds like the setup for a lousy punch line, right?

Instead, it’s a scene from ABC’s successful drama Once Upon a Time and somehow, like the rest of the show’s first season, it completely works.

Fairy tales aren’t known for being particularly complex or for attracting an adult audience. They’re typically reserved for bedtime stories and Disney animated features, not for serialized primetime dramas. However, last year, some of the writers behindLost debuted a new series about fairy tale characters with Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and Rumplestiltskin among the main roles. The show’s first season is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

In the series, familiar fairytale characters have been ripped from their world by a curse that the Evil Queen unleashed in hopes of destroying everyone’s happily-ever-afters. They’re relocated to Storybrooke, a modern town where time stands still. The storyline finds the people of Storybrooke not knowing who they really are, with no memories of their fairy-tale past.

Enter Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), an out-of-towner, who somehow must break the curse. Her son, Henry, whom she abandoned at birth, urgently brings her to town in hopes she can “wake” everyone up. To further complicate things, Henry’s adoptive mother, Regina, isn’t just the mysterious town’s mayor, she also happens to be the powerful Evil Queen.

With such a premise, if handled poorly, the average viewer would easily be too cynical to come along for such a fantastical ride, but the series is unexpectedly enchanting. As it turns out Once Upon a Time was rightfully one of the biggest successes of the 2011-2012 television season, thanks to an enjoyable storyline and some captivating performances. You don’t need a magic mirror to understand the appeal of the series. Its epic scope and theatrical ambition are impressive. Plus, it’s fairly smart but also family-friendly, making for a rare, welcome combination.

Co-creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis follow the right blueprints from Lost; there’s a large, diverse ensemble of characters, each with complicated back-stories. These back-stories are fleshed out with Lost-style flashbacks to each character’s radically different (pre-curse) fairy tale past in the Enchanted Forest.

Since Once Upon a Time airs on the Disney-owned ABC, the showrunners are permitted to use Disney’s iconic variations of classic fantasy stories, so trademarked personalities like Jiminy Cricket and Gaston do appear frequently. The Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, and Maleficent aren’t unlike their depictions in the Disney animated features. Even Belle (Emilie de Ravin) certainly looks like her animated counterpart, right down to the design of her dress.

At the same time, much credit should be given to the writers whose characterizations of heroes, princesses, and villains often break far away from the normal storybook portrayals to reveal layered personas and plenty of unexpected twists. Most notably, there are as many strong, heroic women as strong men, which is a welcome variation from the damsel in distress situation you’ve seen countless times. Snow White, for example, does plenty of rescuing on her own while in the Enchanted Forest.

There are welcome variations to the classic fairy tales, so they’re not as drab or predictable as they could be. In the season, you might be surprised to empathize with Rumplestiltskin’s tragic origins or be stunned by the reveal of the wolf’s alter ego in Red Riding Hood’s flashbacks. Plus, even most of the costumes are delightfully fashionable instead of reproducing any typical renaissance faire garb.

The first few episodes of Once Upon a Time are slow, but the drama soon finds a good pace and moves quite swiftly. As the season progresses, the show finds its footing and eventually delivers the right assortment of mystery, action-adventure, and romance. Helping all of this is Mark Isham’s terrific score, which consistently remains bounding in whimsy, dread, triumph, and mystery, carrying you through each of the episodes.

Each character seems to have real stakes in the plot, infusing most scenes with emotional weight. Admirably, all the heroes are flawed while no villain is evil for evil’s sake. There’s good reason and plenty of heartbreak to motivate the two villains, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle). These antagonists get the best lines of dialogue and exhibit the dynamic flair needed to steal scenes.

While all characters do have thematic links between their Storybrooke guise and their true self, the contrasting personas between the two worlds give most of the performers the chance to show off their acting chops.

Parrilla and Carlyle, the real standouts, are completely engrossing whether they’re playing adversaries in the Enchanted Forest or in Storybrooke. They command your attention with their intensity, control, range, and heartfelt expressions. Rumplestiltskin, in particular, is a fully realized character that you can’t help but deeply feel for, thanks to his nuanced depiction. Due to his complex character and the dual universes, Carlyle is given opportunities to be confident, maniacal, sympathetic, slimy, creepy, and tender, sometimes in the same episode. He shines whether he’s sulking or sinister. In doing so, Carlyle delivers one of the best performances on broadcast television in recent memory.

In contrast, as Emma, Jennifer Morrison isn’t allowed to have much fun. She’s a strong heroic lead, but seems especially regulated to stoic, monotone intensity. Similarly, while I’d imagine someone might find the romance between Goodwin’s Snow White and Dallas’ Prince Charming, well, charming, I never bought the actors’ on-screen chemistry for a single moment.

Playing with icons that most viewers have shared knowledge of works to the show’s benefit. The producers masterfully turn many modern fairy tales on their heads or expand the prose into a much more multifaceted tale than what was originally told by, for example, the Brothers Grimm. The writers hit or miss with backstories that tell you the answers to things you’ve never wondered about or cared about, like what made Grumpy so grumpy or how the man in the magic mirror ended up there in the first place. The season finds layers of complexity and emotional resonance that you didn’t imagine accompanied the original tales. There’s also plenty of creative mashing up that takes place; the episodes beautifully interweave characters into the same narrative, from Rumplestiltskin’s lengthy discussions with Cinderella, to Prince Charming’s war room meeting with Pinocchio and Red Riding Hood.

However, the show’s not without its faults. The tone is not particularly dark, but it is rather heavy. While magic understandably shows up often, comic relief, inexplicably, does not. A little more humor would go a long way for a series with characters so linked to childhood memories. It should also be said that even for a fairy-tale centric universe, absurd things happen. Case in point, early on Prince Charming spends time twirling around, taking down warriors with a sword in one hand and his newborn baby in another.

Plus, the effects don’t always make the action believable. There is a poorly rendered CGI-dragon (even worse than the lousy CGI-dragon in Enchanted) that is so laughable that it practically ruins the intensity of its battle with our protagonist, Emma Swan. The quality of the effects is truly a mixed bag with beautifully rendered backdrops and action sequences sometimes intermingling with computer-generated creations that might even look inadequate for the worst low-budget SyFy original movies.

Even so, Once Upon a Time is full of relevant themes to anyone on a journey of self-discovery. The show’s all about discovering who you really are and what you’re meant to do, which is a beautiful thing.

Ultimately, like any serialized storyline worth sticking with, it’s the hearty cliffhanger at the conclusion of each episode that leaves you anticipating the next chapter. And the season finale fittingly delivers the best cliffhanger with unexpected twists, payoffs, and turns that will have fans clamoring for the beginning of Season 2. Among the season’s 22 episodes, it’s easily the fairest one of all.

The five-disc Blu-ray set includes a variety of special features including some of the best and worst commentary tracks to accompany a television series. The show’s creators (Horowitz and Kitsis) provide wonderfully insightful audio commentary that discusses their lofty aspirations, costuming choices, references to Lost and the use of props to foreshadow plot twists. Their production stories are worth a listen. It was fascinating, for example, to learn that Snow White’s coffin in the pilot episode’s opening scene was placed in an actual hollow log in a Vancouver forest and that even the snow that accompanied her awakening kiss, believe it or not, was real.

In contrast, actors Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin can’t seem to remember much about the episode they do commentary for, except they repeatedly rant about how often it rains in Vancouver. Plus, there are informative nuggets like “Josh, you’re so good,” followed by “No, you’re so good!”

The Blu-ray collection has an exclusive yet forgettable featurette, “Once Upon a Time: Origins”, hosted by Josh Dallas which rapidly probes historical roots of some of the fairy tales featured in the series.

The best featurette is a wonderful six-minute tribute to the on-location film crew’s transformation of the actual Canadian village of Stevestown into a convincing Storybrooke. It’s nice to see set designers, construction crew, and production assistants get a few minutes of well-deserved fame for their remarkable renovating work for a series that’s all about how things are more than meets the eye.

All in all, the tagline for season two may be “magic is coming,” but there’s plenty of magical entertainment to be enjoyed in Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season.

RATING 8 / 10