Conceptually daring and exceptionally well cast, “Once Upon a Time” is the kind of pilot that often gets critics cheering — a big, bold bet in a season with precious few of them. The pilot’s fairy dust, however, doesn’t extend to a second previewed episode, stoking concerns whether the show can consistently conjure magic — overcoming formidable challenges, including ABC’s muddled ad campaign, and inspiring viewers to crack open its pages. Despite the pilot’s charms, the prospects of a happy ending, TV-wise, look a little cloudy.
Created by “Lost” writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, the series weds the flashing to and fro of that series with Stephen King’s whimsical side. Cutting between a fairy-tale realm and contemporary one, the series chronicles how the Evil Queen (“Swingtown’s” Lana Parrilla) cast a spell trapping fairy-tale characters — including Snow White (“Big Love’s” Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) — in the modern town of Storybrooke, Maine.
Much of this insight comes courtesy of a young boy, Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who explains to new arrival Emma (Jennifer Morrison) that she’s the daughter of Snow White and the Prince, who — like everyone else in the quaint hamlet except the queen — have no memory of who they really are.
Like “Lost,” the show intercuts between these two worlds, offering a dark and slightly revisionist view of the old fairy tales. As for the town, the vibe brings to mind King’s “Needful Things,” with Emma obviously destined to hang around for awhile — and facing a long, uphill slog (ABC hopes, anyway) before she believes Henry’s preposterous tale, much less manages to help undo the queen’s curse.
The pilot certainly looks great, and it’s hard to imagine better choices for the leads than Goodwin and Parrilla. The producers also have considerable fun with little details, in everything from the character names (Jiminy Cricket becomes Archie Hopper) to the production and costume design.
That said, the second hour looks a trifle shoddy FX-wise, with trolls essentially depicted as ill-tempered hippies — not exactly the stuff of storybook fantasy. Vancouver’s lovely, but the show’s going to require more magic than just its lush forests.
ABC clearly harbors a solid idea who the audience will be, seeking to lay claim to women on Sunday — a night when more people watch TV — by premiering the series against not just “Sunday Night Football” but also potential World Series coverage on Fox. In essence, the network seems willing to sacrifice men in exchange for trying to draw in a female audience, and perhaps younger viewers as well.
Achieving that might be a case of threading the needle to spin gold worthy of Rumplestiltskin, but based on the enthusiasm the pilot rightfully engendered, one hopes “Once Upon a Time” will be up to the task and fulfill that promise.
If not, this might be just the latest ambitious concept unable to write its own storybook ending.