(ABC) “Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing.” An evil witch has set a curse upon the enchanted forest, trapping its fairy-tale residents in a prison that's both imaginary and real: a town called Storybrooke, Maine. The characters don't remember who they really are; they think they're the normal denizens of our mundane world. For a show with such a frankly ridiculous premise, ABC's Once Upon a Time is remarkably intense and engaging. Sharp writing and a great cast raise the tale to a level of mythic significance.
Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is a bail bondsman – sorry, bondsperson – with no memory of her parents and no relationship with the son she gave up for adoption. On her twenty-eighth birthday, she makes a wish to no longer be alone, and the boy shows up at her apartment door. Henry (Jared Gilmore) is determined to bring her back to Storybrooke where he believes she will lift the curse and save everyone. Naturally, she's skeptical, but something about the boy's adoptive mother (Lana Parrilla) raises her suspicions and causes her to stay.
The idea of a town that's actually a simulacrum goes back to ancient legends. In recent times, it's been explored by authors like Philip K. Dick and Adolfo Bioy Casares – the latter's novella The Invention of Morel having been referenced in another somewhat popular ABC show called Lost (Once Upon a Time's creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz both used to write for Lost).
In terms of theme and tone, Once Upon a Time bears comparison to fantasies like The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, and Pan's Labyrinth. Another less obvious comparison would be to the BBC's Doctor Who: both shows have a similarly gleeful disregard for cynics who would label them “sentimental” or “goofy.” They stand by their characters and narrative decisions with unapologetic innocence.
Certain stories have the spark of real magic in them. They recognize that – deep down – we all want to believe in destiny, fate, and happy endings. This was the root of Harry Potter's wild success, and Once Upon a Time pulls off a similar trick of juxtaposing our dark and difficult world with a more whimsical one. It captures that longing we all feel for simplicity and hope. Meanwhile, it also offers interesting twists on time-honored fairy-tale tropes.
Robert Carlyle is particularly good as the ethereal, creepy Mr. Gold – the guise of the imp Rumpelstiltskin. Twelve-year-old Jared Gilmore is also striking in the role of Henry; his performance is unusually self-possessed without losing its childlike charm. The actors all seem to find just the right balance between melodrama and real emotion.
It's also worth noting how much of the show's mythology is laid out in the very first episode, and how intriguing and addictive it manages to be nonetheless. This is the mark of brave storytelling and inspired writing. For those willing to suspend their disbelief and allow their sense of wonder to roam free, Once Upon a Time is a thrilling ride.
Why We Like It: lighthearted tone mixed with real emotion, a rare sense of innocence and wonder, excellent writing.