Pilot rapid-fire review: Once Upon a Time

There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be.

During the series premiere of ABC’s Once Upon a Time last night, I laughed out loud at least five times. I’m 109 percent sure that ABC, Adam Horowtiz and Edward Kitsis did not want me to have this reaction, but I could not help it. I am a big supporter of high-concept televisual attempts and am always willing to go down the proverbial rabbit hole with series that want to pull off big, sweeping stories. However, there is just something inherently ridiculous about Once Upon a Time that I’m not sure I will ever be able to overlook.

Generally speaking, Once Upon a Time feels like a story that sounds magical in pitch form and then once it’s actually scripted, filmed, edited, scored, etc., it just comes off as goofy, plodding and lacking some self-awareness. I understand that the fairytale characters like Snow White and Prince Charming are experiencing legitimately dire and dangerous circumstances, but the whole pilot lacks any levity or brightness to it. The fairytale world is glum (and somewhat cheap looking, though it is better than I expected) and flat and the “real” world is especially bleak, gray and miserable. Everyone is sad, sure, but it would be nice if it didn’t feel like Horowitz and Kitsis’ script was taking the whole affair so dramatically, gravely serious. It’s a high-concept series about fairytale characters, after all.

Additionally, I can’t let go of the fact that this pilot is supremely dull and predictable. If you’ve seen a 40-second promo and/or read a logline about Once Upon a Time, you’ve gotten all you really need to know from the pilot. The episode sets up a mystery early on in the proceedings that anyone with a semi-functioning brain could figure out, but then eschews informing the character that said mystery is about. Mystery often works best when the audience is in the dark alongside the characters. Once hopes that viewers won’t care that its lead character is the centerpiece to a multi-dimensional throwdown but doesn’t actually know it yet, maybe because they’ll be too distracted by playing spot the fairytale character.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s no real reason for me to care about these particular versions of characters I already know because the pilot doesn’t spend any time actually asking me to. Snow White goes from dead to bride to giving birth to defeated in five scenes that cross nearly a year. I like Ginnifer Goodwin a lot, but I can’t just write my love for her (I even watched Something Borrowed for her, guys) onto a character that doesn’t have much shape or personality. Lana Parrila and Robert Carlyle are a bit more engaging, but both of their respective characters are given even less establishing time. And Jennifer Morrison tries her best to inject some attitude into her role as Emma, the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, but  either she’s not really fit for the bad-girl role, the writing doesn’t meet her halfway or there’s a bit of both going on. Apparently throwing on a leather jacket and slapping Warren Christie’s head against a steering column don’t necessarily equate to badassery.

I have read a few reviews that suggested that this project would work much better if it were a short-run Syfy miniseries or something of similar ilk and I really couldn’t agree more. I’d be much more willing to forgive Once Upon a Time’s shortcomings if it were only going to exist for five hours. I still wouldn’t think it was very good, but I could definitely live with the lack of character development, the obviousness and the like.

But ABC hopes this will be a long-running project for them and (gulp) perhaps something that could help fill the Lost-sized void in its schedule (last night’s ratings suggest this is possibility, though I can’t wait to see the week two figures). Of all the pilots I’ve seen this season, this is the one that has the least amount of clarity in regards to the future. What does episode six of Once look like (other than mediocre, probably)? Is the series going to turn into a quasi-procedural with Jennifer Morrison’s character “investigating” fairytale-y clues and crimes? I have no idea. Dragging out big mysteries might have been Lost’s MO, but this is an entirely different beast with infinitely less compelling plot threads.

This all leads me to an important point: Although ABC has been marketing the series based on Horowitz and Kitsis’ connection to Lost, we would be remised not to mention that the duo was much better at providing emotional buttons to smaller stories (see the glorious “Greatest Hits”) than writing successful long-term mythology episodes. Plus, they also wrote Tron: Legacy, which was straight-up awful. The LostTron combination gives Horowitz and Kitsis some industry cachet, but doesn’t paint the whole picture of their abilities as storytellers. Once Upon a Time is empty and rote and relies almost entirely on a basic gimmick and the audience’s familiarity with stock characters. So yeah, it’s just like Tron: Legacy. It is an idea that was never pushed much further than that and I’m not remotely convinced that I should care where it’s going or why anything matters.

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