Once Upon A Time premiered on Sunday night as a compatible lead-in to Desperate Housewives — that is, if you re-titled the new show something more apt, such as Desperate Fairy-Tale Characters. Certainly, like Housewives, its small-town setting is stuffed with nighttime-soap style characters engaged in endless intrigue. But Once, unlike Housewives, doesn’t have a humorous bone in its brittle body.
In Once Upon a Time, the set-up is exhaustively exhausting. Storybrooke, Maine, is a town where fairy-tale characters such as Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, and Jiminy Cricket exist as ordinary citizens, without any memory of their literary heritage. The series, from Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, jumps back regularly to a sylvan make-believe world where we see Snow White (Big Love’s Ginnifer Goodwin) threatened by the Evil Queen (24’s Lana Parrilla). The show seems to be about House’s Jennifer Morrison, as a contemporary-world “bail bonds person” tracking down the connections between the two universes, figuring out her own place in fairy-tale history, and bringing the two worlds together in harmony.
But wait, there’s more: Morrison is actually the grown daughter of Snow White and her wan Prince Charming (Josh Dallas). And the only person who’s made the connection between both worlds is a little boy name Henry (Jared Gilmore), who says he’s Morrison’s birth son, having figured it out by reading a book of fairy tales. (Please, Kitsis and Horowitz, assure us that we won’t reach the end of the series and find out the entire thing existed in Henry’s head, a la not just Lost, but also St. Elsewhere.) And I haven’t even mentioned yet that time has been frozen in Storybrooke and no one in the “real” world remembers who they are in fairy-tale land. We and Henry are the only ones to see the behavioral connections between, say, what a witch Lara Parilla is as Storybrooke’s mayor and the witch she was who cast the time-freezing, memory-erasing spell.
Once Upon a Time has some of the candy-colored palette of another ABC series that choked on its own whimsy, Pushing Daisies. But that show had a lively cast. Once is a succession of close-ups of gaunt glares from Morrison and pitiful pouts from Goodwin. Everyone — from Morrison’s hard-boiled bounty hunter to Parrilla’s permanently enraged Queen — seems so miserable.
This is a problem for the series, because viewers coming to the show for the light, good-will-prevail tone of fairy tales may be brought up short, and perhaps dismayed, by its dark fantasy. And dark-fantasy fans will probably find the series not dark enough. (For that, they have The Walking Dead on the same night, and, when it returns, Game of Thrones.) And to those of you who say, well, the Grimm brothers fairy tales from which Once takes off were more grim than we recall, I’ll say that I’ve re-read a bunch of the ones pertinent to this TV show, and they’re more brief, more varied in tone, and, at their conclusions, more positive in their outcomes. It takes but a few pages for Rumpelstiltskin to receive justice for his meanness; it’s going to take a long time for that to occur on Once Upon a Time, if only because the deft Robert Carlyle has been clearly cast as a long-term bad-guy.
I think there are a lot of people in the TV industry who believe there’s a large audience for this kind of bleak spin on life and our imaginary lives, whereas I believe that there’s a large audience that’s sick of precisely those qualities in their escapist television. As is becoming increasingly clear, “edgy” and “gritty” and “dark” are becoming exhausted, played-out tropes. The notion of its citizens being “trapped” in Storybrooke, Maine, by a “curse” is an all to easy metaphor for the way many people feel trapped in their own towns by the stagnant economy. And if a substantial number of viewers feel that way, wouldn’t they prefer to watch The Amazing Race or the World Series or football to escape that feeling?