I’ve just returned from a dream world of magic populated by classic fairy tale characters experiencing modern angst. No, it’s not the movie Enchanted, and it’s not the long-running DC comic book series Fables, but this TV series borrows so liberally from those and other properties we’ve seen before that it should be titled Thrice Upon a Time. Throw in an ongoing flashback format generally focusing on one character each week that recalls the earlier LOST writing work of series “creators” Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, and you can virtually hear the hackneyed plot pitch they made that somehow got this show on the air. That’s not to say it’s not without its simple pleasures, but its startling lack of creativity is cause for concern for anyone hoping for an extended multiyear run.
Once upon a time, the Evil Queen was annoyed by Snow White, but instead of taking her revenge on just Snow she released a curse on the entire kingdom that doomed everyone to live in our dreary world with no memory of their magical pasts. As modern-day inhabitants of Storybrooke, Maine, all of the famous fairy-tale characters carry on normal lives and careers, with the only remaining magic being a time warp around their town that prevents them from aging. Twenty-eight years later, a young boy ventures from Storybrooke to Boston to seek out his biological mom who gave him up for adoption as a baby. Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is a hard-charging bounty hunter with no maternal instincts, and yet she immediately agrees to drive the strange boy back to his home town. Along the way, young Henry spins tales to Emma about how she’s the mythical savior of the kingdom who will break the Evil Queen’s curse and return everyone to their magical origins.
According to Henry, Emma is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, and she was sent to this world as a newborn baby via a magical wardrobe just before the kingdom was destroyed. Narnia? Superman? Nope, Pinocchio’s dad Gepetto actually carved the wardrobe, and Emma is now somehow supposed to remember and believe that the fairy-tale characters are real even though her entire life has been spent in our world. Needless to say, Henry doesn’t get far in convincing her. However, once she meets Henry’s prickly adopted mom, aka the Evil Queen, aka the Mayor of Storybrooke, she decides to take an interest in his well-being and stick around in town for a spell. Eventually, that leads to her appointment as the town sheriff, because apparently Storybrooke has no requirement for previous law-enforcement experience.
Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) is in a coma, and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) doesn’t remember him, but when he finally wakes up and they start to get to know each other, they begin a seemingly doomed love story that finds Charming taking so many uncharming and poorly plotted turns that I actually didn’t want them to get together. You know your series is in trouble when your central romance story sucks. It doesn’t help that both actors are so bland that they make white bread seem like an exotic delicacy.
Thankfully, the little-known Lana Parrilla nails her breakout role as the Evil Queen, chewing scenery and co-stars with aplomb. Robert Carlyle also gets great mileage out of his generally evil Rumplestiltskin character, adding more zest to the stew. Elsewhere, in both real world and fantasy-flashback world segments, LOST alum Emilie de Ravin pops in as Belle, while Little Red Riding Hood, the Seven Dwarfs, Jiminy Cricket, the Magic Mirror, and others make recurring appearances. But wait, this is an in-house ABC/Disney project, so it’s not just classic fairy tale characters. No, the town Dalmatian is named Pongo, Belle cracks a teacup so we have Chip, and Henry carries a TRON lunchbox and exclusively reads Marvel comic books (because we wouldn’t want him finding out about DC’s Fables after all), infusing the show with so much corporate synergy you almost expect the characters to tell us what’s coming up next on ABC.
Of special note: the costumes are fantastic and are possibly the best thing about the show. The costume designer uses really interesting fabrics and designs in the "fairy tale world" segments that fully drive home the fantasy setting, especially in his magnificent work for the Evil Queen. I don’t know if there’s an Emmy for costume design, but if there is he’s a lock. Unfortunately, those dreamy costumes are frequently paraded around on empty green-screen sets that later get filled in with abysmal, bargain-basement CG backgrounds. The cost-cutting concept didn’t work for the V reboot, and it’s even worse here. Spend a little more Mouse coin and build some sets next season, thank you.
In spite of the lousy CG, the series looks and sounds great on Blu-ray and is worth the premium price over DVD. The Blu-ray also includes an innovative new feature called SeasonPlay that allows you to create and log in to a profile that keeps track of where you are in the season no matter what else you watch in between episodes. It even allows multiple profiles, so family members can watch separately and/or join in with your profile as needed. It’s a nice feature for family members that want to experience the show around the same time but may not be able to watch the entire season together. The Blu-ray also includes an exclusive bonus feature that finds Josh Dallas guiding viewers through the historical literary origins of the fairy tale characters, a bit of a snooze but worth a look for diehard fans.
As for other bonus features, there are behind-the-scenes looks at the real town in British Columbia that they use for exteriors, interviews with the creators and cast, and a look at the casting of Belle from concept through costume design to filming. Deleted scenes and bloopers round out the package.
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season comes to life on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, August 28th. Win a Blu-ray from Cinema Sentries—find out how.