Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla, Josh Dallas, Jared S. Gilmore, Raphael Sbarge, Jamie Dornan, Robert Carlyle, and Eion Bailey.
Once Upon a Time
There was an enchanted forest filled with all the classic characters we know.
Or think we know.
One day they found themselves trapped in a place where all their happy endings were stolen.
This is how it happened.
Once Upon a Time follows the above, quite simple, yet deliciously entertaining premise. Familiar fairytale characters, such as Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) are cursed by The Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) to rob them of their happy endings. This results in them being transported to a sleepy village in Maine called Storybrooke, with no knowledge of who they are and living a blurred and boring existence. While The Evil Queen fashions herself as the powerful Mayor Regina, Snow White becomes the meek and unassuming Mary Margaret Blanchard, a school teacher by day and hopeless romantic by night. Prince Charming hardly fares any better, becoming David Nolan, a family man conflicted between his beautiful and dutiful wife and his growing attraction to Mary Margaret, but lacks the courage to make a decision either way. All inhabitants of the village have lived forgotten lives, and had forgotten loves, back in the Enchanted Forest, but have been stripped of these happinesses by reliving the same day countless times over under the watchful eye of the vengeful Queen.
However, there is hope on the horizon. The curse can be broken by the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White, as the product of true love. The pair had to give up their daughter using a magical wardrobe shortly after her birth before the Dark Curse arrived, leading to the princess growing up believing herself abandoned. Jaded, stoic and streetwise, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is the furthest thing away from what you would expect Snow White and Prince Charming’s child to be. A bail bondsman in Boston, her destiny only comes calling when her estranged son, Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) comes knocking on her door talking about fairytales and a curse. Using a storybook, Henry fervently believes in the curse and coaxes Emma to come back to Storybrooke with him where he is the adopted son of Regina.
Though Emma is initially keen to leave Henry and get on with her own life, her concern for his wellbeing with the harsh and cold Regina leads her to stay in Storybrooke, where we slowly see signs of the curse weakening. Time starts moving forwards throughout the town, and Emma seems to be getting inadvertently closer to bringing everybody’s happy endings back. She is the Saviour, and the only one who can stop the curse, but how can she when she doesn’t even believe in it in the first place?
The series, created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who also created Lost, features a split narrative which allows various plot elements and expositions to be spanned out across the season. Each episode has dual settings: the present-day Storybrooke and the Enchanted Forest of the past. With each instalment, a new nugget is revealed about our characters’ backstories, which really gives the audience a deeper understanding of all of the main players.
With the fairytale flashbacks, the show also manages to modify and adapt the classic fairytales so that the viewers can appreciate them in a new light. The more successful elements involve the embellishments made to our villains, as well as to our heroines. Much as, obviously, these fairytales derive from sources preceding Disney’s films, these are doubtless the most popular images that viewers associate with Snow White and the Evil Queen, for example. One of the brilliant successes of the season is the way that it gives greater agency and tenacity to characters who have previously been presented as subservient.
The Snow White that Once Upon a Time shows is a far cry from the singing, cleaning, prancing Snow introduced by Walt Disney in 1937 (perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the massive generational shift between then and now). Instead, she is presented as being fiercely independent, and unafraid to fight in order to protect herself and her kingdom. Her fairytale flashbacks are equally dedicated to her burgeoning love story with Prince Charming, which is much better realised and developed here than in the source material, as well as her conflict with The Evil Queen who has overtaken her kingdom. In fact, her eye for survival defines her entire story throughout the season in the Enchanted Forest and, even though her happy ending ultimately ends up being with a man, the same can be said for Prince Charming.
One character who is the definition of a modern woman is Emma Swan. Her happy ending does not derive from the advent of love, but rather through the advancement of her career and her sense of feeling at home, as well as building a vital relationship with her son Henry. Throughout the season, in fact, Emma never falls into the narrative trap of needing a man to have a complete existence and moreover does not sacrifice her femininity in order to do so. She is, instead, a deeply complex and nuanced character who emotionally distances herself from those around her as a result of her upbringing. The unpacking of that childhood trauma continues to be felt throughout the first season and it’s notable that it is never magically “fixed” or forgotten about, but rather an intrinsic part of the character that naturally informs her decisions.
Not only this, but the villains also get meaningful character development. Instead of being camp, two-dimensional foes, they are camp, three-dimensional foes, who have genuine motivations behind their actions. The show really plays with the idea that villainy is created and not born, and exploring the choices that led our characters to their current predicament really helps the viewer to appreciate and root for even the most evil people despite their myriad transgressions. Though, some of the Evil Queen’s costumes are delightfully iconic and off-putting in equal measure.
Part of the delight of each instalment derives from the wonderful mirroring of concepts and dilemmas between the Storybrooke and the fairytale encounters. While sometimes there are brilliant similarities, there are also horrendous juxtapositions due to the characters’ different circumstances. Though Snow may fight for her independence, for example, Mary Margaret balks at any sign of conflict and assertiveness. There is also a significant departure in what one would expect from Snow White and Prince Charming in their Storybrooke storyline, which often makes the show incredibly intriguing.
Not only do the show runners update the slightly old fashioned fairytales to make them accessible to a modern audience, but they also skilfully interweave the different stories in the Enchanted Forest. Sometimes this results in quite inspired and creative interpolations, such as the combining of different fairytale characters, such as Rumpelstiltskin also being the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, which is a fitting link.
Having said this, these clever interpretations can sometimes be the show’s downfall. While some of them are wonderfully intriguing and engaging, within a 22-episode run, the show can become a bit stagnant when trying to incorporate a flashback within each week’s story. Some of the fairytales are not particularly engrossing, especially if they do not focus upon a main character, but rather a guest star. By the end of the season, the audience is desperately rooting for Emma to break the curse and that story arc drags on far too long than what is comfortable.
The pacing is definitely the source of most of the frustration at this first outing. Having a curse last the entire of the season makes the audience root for Storybrooke’s inhabitants to finally remember their lives as fairytale characters, so that all of the meaningful development that we can witness in the flashbacks can actually be observed in their demeanour. Furthermore, the more obscure flashbacks the audience gets, the more meandering the overall plot line seems.
Visually, the show is mixed. While the locations used in Vancouver are absolutely stunning, some of the Enchanted Forest sections rely quite heavily upon CGI environments that a network TV budget simply cannot successfully accommodate. Though it doesn’t detract from the masterful performances, it can sometimes be jarring and eliminates the reality and truthfulness that the other aspects of storytelling are trying to create.
The performances are a particular strong point throughout the season. Ginnifer Goodwin plays both Snow White and Mary Margaret beautifully. Though the two characters are vastly different, you can see the same underlying spirit running through them both. Her passion, courage and compassion permeate both of her performances, and she is a character that is thoroughly likeable and consistent throughout. She is relatable to a modern audience despite her fairytale upbringings, and really helps to make this fairytale character feel more real.
Jennifer Morrison also plays the subversive and streetwise Emma with a brilliant relish. She isn’t entirely what you would expect a protagonist in a fairytale story to be, as she is rather more brash and abrasive than a typical Disney princess, but despite her hard exterior, she is surprisingly easy to root for.
Lana Parrilla is also a credible and imposing villain as the Evil Queen, and as Storybrooke’s mayor Regina. Her entire performance exudes an air of menace and vitriol, but it isn’t without its nuance, and Parrilla does brilliantly at highlighting Regina’s vulnerabilities throughout. She never falls into the category of cartoonish or one-note throughout the run, which helps Regina feel more real.
At its heart, Once Upon a Time is a deeply inventive and engrossing fantasy drama. Sometimes too overly reliant upon green screens, the truthful and organic performances across the board help the audience to relate to and support the characters. Ultimately, it’s the investment within the characters that will persuade the audience to keep watching, as well as the deeply creative elements of fantastical storytelling throughout.
You can watch Once Upon a Time Seasons 1 – 7 on Netflix. It is also available on home media and other digital platforms for purchase or rent.