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NYCC 2011: 'Once Upon a Time' Pilot Review & Panel Highlights

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Oct 14, 2011 | 3:28pm EDT

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Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, the writing duo behind ABC's latest high concept fantasy Once Upon a Time, come from quite the pedigree. They're LOST alums and in the biz, that's a good thing to have on your resume. The legendary gig is a big reason why the network was ready to take the plunge on their high-budget, cinematic, storybook tale (ABC drops the LOST connection all over their ads), but whereas LOST kicked off with a character-approach to his mysterious premise, Once Upon a Time harkens back to another screenplay by Horowitz and Kitsis: Tron Legacy—a movie that was pretty to look at but filled with lifeless scene-fillers.

ALTOnce Upon a Time introduces us to two worlds: an unnamed fantasy land, full of well-known fairy tale characters and colorful landscapes, and a modern day reality not unlike our own. In the former, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and their kingdom of storybook compatriots find themselves in the target of the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla). The grumpy witch is hellbent on destroying Snow and her chiseled hubby—along with their unborn child. Not knowing where else to turn, Snow White seeks guidance in Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), who peers into the future to reveal the Evil Queen's horrible plan. She has a curse brewing, one that will transport the inhabitants of fairy tale land to "the worst place imaginable," erase their memories and freeze them in time.

That horrible place? Coastal Maine—or, specifically, a small town called Storybrook (which makes one wonder, do they realize their characters in fairy tales?).

In the real world, a young boy named Henry travels from Storybrook to Boston, where he crosses paths with a stunning blonde bail bondswoman named Emma (Jennifer Morrison). Turns out, she's Henry's Mom. The ten-year-old ropes Emma into driving him back to Maine, seizing the moment to reveal to her the magical truth behind his hometown and its recognizable population.

Like any logical adult (and heck, even audience member of the show), Emma doesn't take much of Henry's crazy stories seriously, but the truth is evident: Snow White's the first grade teacher; Jiminy Cricket, a child psychologist; Grumpy the Dwarf's the town drunk; and the Evil Queen has become Henry's catty stepmother. Emma, it seems, is tied to all of them.

In true LOST fashion, Once Upon a Time's pilot doesn't offer too many answers. Totally fair—but what's more disconcerting is the lack of direction. Emma's loner lifestyle and her relationship with Henry are fascinating, but completely overshadowed by the fantastical elements. Horowitz and Kitsis seem much more concerned with popping in as many on-the-nose fairy tale references as an hour allows (i.e. Regina, the Evil Stepmom, gravitates towards her mirror and keeps a bowl of apples in her living room—cute, but eye-roll worthy). The show needs real characters, real people and they have that in Morrison. She has dimension—if the show was just about her catching criminals, I'd be sold.

But the show's selling point is the fantasy element, a dazzling landscape with the dramatic tension of a SyFy Channel movie. Goodwin is a great actress, but in OUAT, she's stuck reciting goofy dialogue suited for kids lit. Carlyle is the only one who makes it work, thanks to his sadistic, kooky take on Rumplestiltskin. He spins a straw script in to gold, so to speak.

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Weaving reality and fantasy is no easy task—Neil Gaimain's American Gods and Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic are among the few memorable successes—but the solution to Once Upon a Time's problems seems obvious: scale back the fairy tale shtick. There's a good show here, but piling on mythology and mystery isn't the answer and spiffy special effects only go so far. If the show opts for real people over storybook characters, then we'll see a happy ending.

A few highlights from the panel, featuring the two writers:

There are a few LOST references tossed in to the pilot, confirmed by the writers. I won't spoil them!The show will continue to bounce back and forth between the fantasy and real world. Think LOST flashback style.Horowitz and Kitsis originally reached out to Lady Gaga to play the Blue Fairy in the pilot.While LOST is mainly about redemption, Horowitz and Kitsis think Once Upon a Time is about hope.Episode 2 will revolve around the Evil Queen and how she became so darn evil, while Ep 3 will tell the story of how Snow White met Prince Charming.Once Upon a Time premieres October 23!

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