Even before ABC's Lost went off the air in 2010, networks were scrambling to gamble big on finding the next high-concept fantasy or science-fiction premise to satisfy viewers' hunger for epic TV. As usual, most of the copycat shows have tanked, but ABC went to the source by hiring two of Lost's most prolific writers, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, to create their own fantasy series, Once Upon a Time. Though the ratings numbers are shy of Lost's by millions of viewers, Once Upon a Time became the second-most-watched drama of the year (with an attractively consistent viewership) and, perhaps more importantly, dovetails by design with the brand of ABC's parent company Disney.
So Once Upon a Time is good commerce, but is it good art? Meh. Once Upon a Time follows the Lost playbook—as many shows do these days—with a bipartite structure of present-day action and flashbacks. The difference here is that while the present-tense action plays out in Storybrooke, Maine, the flashbacks unfold in a different world entirely, a fairy-tale kingdom where all the characters you read about as a child live out their lives. Yep, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) all know Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle); in fact, everyone does, since Rumplestiltskin is a magic-wielding power-broker more powerful—though more sly—than even the Evil Queen. Also kicking around this magic kingdom are Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), The Huntsman (Jamie Dornan), and a host of other players to be named later.
All of these characters have been magically transplanted to Storybrooke, where their collective amnesia allows them to believe they're just plain American folks: the Evil Queen is conniving Mayor Regina Mills, Snow White is sweethearted schoolteacher Mary Margaret Blanchard, Prince Charming is an average Joe—or, rather "John Doe," The Huntsman is the sheriff, Red Riding Hood is an absurdly vampy waitress working for her Granny at the local diner, and so on. Everything changes when Regina's adoptive son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) seeks out his biological mother Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison of House) and insists upon her coming to Storybrooke to see evidence of what he, Cassandra-like, knows to be true: that his family, friends and neighbors are all fairy-tale characters. Specifically, he insists—citing his Once Upon a Time storybook—that Emma's real mother and father are Snow White and Prince Charming. Henry begs for rescue from the clutches of the Evil Queen, but Emma isn't biting; still, off-put by Regina and empathetic to the boy, bail bondswoman Emma decides to stick around for a while, soon taking a job at the sheriff's station.
While inherently silly, Once Upon a Time hits something of a sweet spot for family viewing, and though the special effects tend to be cheesy (apart from one rather impressive dragon), the Vancouver locations at times recall the Hawaii-shot Lost's breathtaking natural settings. In its first season, the show visibly struggles to find its footing: many dull or slow episodes drag the whole enterprise down, partly because two few of the characters scintillate, and the series—in its quest to be taken seriously—too often sidesteps humor (and, with it, fun). The series' one-man saving grace is Carlyle, whose riveting swing-for-the-fences performance works in concert with the show's most interesting writing. The Lost-esque anguished backstory for Mr. Gold gives the generally sinister character surprising weight, and makes him a complex "is he or isn't he" villain. Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The First Avenger), added late in the season as "The Mad Hatter," nicely anchors another winningly ambitious episode involving Wonderland. The reach for epic status sets Once Upon a Time apart; one hopes that reach will result in more grasp during the upcoming sophomore season.
Disney happily (ever after?) gives Once Upon a Time the hi-def treatment it afforded to Lost on home video. It's hard to imagine anyone complaining about the image here, with its bold and true hues, and sharp, detailed resolution. Contrast is particularly pleasing, creating a tight, clean, crisp impression even in nighttime scenes, though the post-production effects work occasionally leave some mild artifacts in their wake (notably a bit of banding). It would be fair to say that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mixes maximize the source material, but equally fair to say the source material hardly maximizes the capability of 5.1 sound. Dialogue is never less than clear, and the music has solid body, but the rear channels stay pretty quiet most of the time, and remain underwhelming even in the most active of sequences.
The selection of audio bonuses includes commentary on "Pilot" with co-creators/executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz; commentary on "7:15 A.M." with actors Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas; commentary on "Skin Deep" with actor Robert Carlyle and writer Jane Espenson; commentary on "The Stable Boy" with Kitsis and Horowitz and actress Lana Parrilla; and commentary on "A Land without Magic" with Kitsis and Horowitz, and actress Jennifer Morrison.
"Once Upon a Time Orchestral Suite" (4:10, HD) offers a nifty little showcase for Mark Isham's music. "Once Upon a Time: Origins" (HD), meanwhile, is an interactive feature incorporating brief origin stories—Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, The Little Mermaid, and Rumpelstiltskin—narrated by Dallas.
"Fairy Tales in the Modern World" (20:30, HD) constitutes a "making-of" feature, addressing the show's inception and approach, as well as its production (including set footage); participants include Kitsis and Horowitz, co-producer David H. Goodman, Espenson, Goodwin, Dallas, Eion Bailey, Beverly Elliot, Carlyle, Meghan Ory, Jared S. Gilmore, Parrilla, Lee Arenberg, Raphael Sbarge, and Morrison.
"Building Character" (7:20, HD) uses Emilie de Ravin's Belle as an example of how the show reconceives and develops a fairy-tale character (costume designer Eduardo Castro explains his role in the process). "Welcome to Storybrooke" (6:50, HD) introduces the filming location of Steveston, British Columbia,
"The Story I Remember...Snow White" (4:30, HD) goes round the cast as they recount their understanding of the show's central fairy tale. Also included are the gag reel "Fairest Bloopers of Them All" (2:20, HD) and nine "Deleted Scenes" (12:50, HD): "Meet Rumplestiltskin," "Cradle," "Regina's Sheriff," "Motherly Love," "Responsibility," "Blood is Thick," "Waste of Time," "Bull's-Eye" and "I'm Your Friend Too."
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