If you’re a television nerd like me, you’re well aware of the duo behind ABC’s newest hit drama, Once Upon a Time. Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis both wrote for one of the most elaborate mysteries to ever hit television: Lost. And if you didn’t know that already, every early promo for Once made sure you found out. Naturally, this invites a certain level of comparison, and while the connection is a bit weaker between the two series than you might hope, it pretty easy to spot the lessons the creators learned from their time writing for Lost. And now that the it’s six episodes in, it’s safe to say those lessons are the biggest reason the new series actually works…sort of.
The series finds Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) as a bounty hunter who’s tracked down by the son she gave up for adoption, Henry (Jared S. Gilmore). He believes that she’s the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and that the Evil Queen’s (Lana Parilla) spell has trapped the couple, along with a slew of other fairy tale characters in a town called Storybrook, where time has stopped and no one remembers their true fairy tale origins. It turns out he’s right and the Evil Queen is ruling over everyone as a small town mayor. Emma feels for Henry and decides to stay, meaning she starts sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong and our characters’ backstories and the mystery behind the Queen’s evil plan slowly begin to unravel. The series also stars Jamie Dornan as The Hunstman (and Sheriff of Storybrook), Raphael Sbarge as Jiminy Cricket (and Henry’s therapist), and Robert Carlyle as the mysterious, sinister Rumpelstiltskin.
Now, before I have a slew of Lost fans jumping to conclusions, Once doesn’t touch the brilliance of Lost. It is, however, very easy to spot the elements our writers are pulling from the beloved series. The pilot dropped us right into the action: Emma goes straight to the fairy tale town just as Lost dropped us right into the aftermath of the crash of Oceanic Flight 815. From this sudden beginning, we start to unravel the mystery of this strange small town through the fairy tale characters’ flashbacks. We see glimpses of their alternate existences before the disaster of the Queen’s spell. While it’s an obvious repurposing of the Lost format, it’s what gives the series its teeth. This style of slow reveal is what hooks us, whether we appreciate the show’s other elements or not.
And when it comes to Once’s other facets, the fantasy element is a little overgrown. The writers obviously need to fiddle with fairy tale lineage, storylines, and interactions amongst well-known characters in order to deliver a story that we haven’t already read as young children. That’s all good and well, but it seems that their ideas often exceed their budget. The result is a series of fairy tale scenes that could be fantastical, but feel more like a well-produced video game than a scene from a primetime drama. These scenes attempt to be ultra-serious and modern, but the problem is they are fairy tale scenes and their appearance doesn’t merit the severity the writing bestows on them; the series should probably lend a little more levity and whimsy to these moments, especially if they continue to include an alarming excess of rhinestones and feathers on every princess’ outfit. (Not a good look – in any century.) So, I ask, Once writers, why so serious? They seemingly have no issue including silly little Easter eggs like the Apollo candy bars Hurley loved so much and the latest episode’s flash of Charles Widmore’s beloved MacCutcheon scotch or even Disney nods like dwarfs humming “Whistle While You Work” or Archie naming his Dalmatian Pongo; I just wish that same level of fun and playfulness was consistently throughout instead of in tiny little spurts here and there.
Even with this glaring issue, and the annoyingly cardboard leads, Emma and Henry, the series is still taking some serious steps to ensnare us. While our leads are little dry, they’re combatted by the colorful cast around them. From the sinister Rumplestiltskin to the unrelentingly dreamy Prince Charming to the wistful and maddeningly sweet Snow White, Emma and Henry have enough characters to bounce their straightforward roles off of that we stay entertained. Most recently, we saw the real world school teacher Snow White get just inches from her Storybrook happy ever after, only for the amnesia-afflicted real world version of the Prince to return to his wife. (Oh yes, he’s married to someone else in this version of their lives.) Her heartbreak leads her to another potential suitor and we find that this love story is far from reaching its happy ending, but we know it will get there eventually. The obstacles are so large though, that we can’t help but be curious as to how they’ll possibly overcome them.
Once Upon a Time is not a show any of us are likely proud to watch, but if we’ve been at it this long, we’re sort of stuck. Those Lost-esque devices and whimpering, heart-breaking pouty faces from Goodwin are keeping us on the hook. But by the same token, I doubt this hit show is about to inspire a slew of blogs and message boards hell-bent on solving the mystery before the show can get us there. It’s fun and engaging, but impressive, high-minded television, it is not.