One of the more perplexing trends of the fall TV season is the resurgence of fairy tale characters. Thanks to ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and NBC’s “Grimm,” prime time is flush with Big Bad Wolves and Little Red Riding Hoods hanging around the modern world. Have we all forgotten the valuable lessons we learned when “The Charmings” went off the air back in 1988? Namely, that ... nope, I’ve forgotten.
“Once Upon a Time” is the first of this new breed of fables. It’s the brainchild of several writers from “Lost.” It stars a number of recognizable TV names, and it’s got the backing of the Disney/ABC Television Group. Though it’s different from a lot of shows on TV right now, I’m not convinced its crazy quilt mixture of storybook action, supernatural mystery and modern-day melodrama will sit well with audiences.
The story isn’t an easy one to distill. Over in fairy tale land, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla, “Boomtown”) is pissed over the marriage of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, late of “Big Love”) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas, who was Fandral in Thor). Naturally, she erases everyone’s memory and curses them to live as ordinary people in small-town Maine (now that is evil). Meanwhile ... or later ... or something, there’s this sexy female bounty hunter who tracks down bail jumpers in evening dresses and high heels (talk about your far-fetched fantasies). Her name is Emma Swan, and she’s played by Jennifer Morrison of “House.” One day, a 10-year-old kid named Henry shows up at her apartment claiming to be the long-lost son she put up for adoption. He asks her to take him back to his home, the isolated village of Storybrooke, Maine. There, he insists the residents are all fairy tale characters, even though they can’t remember it. Henry’s adoptive mother is the town mayor, who just happens to be the Evil Queen (who apparently got caught in her own curse). Turns out Emma is actually the daughter of Snow White (who shows up as the town schoolteacher) and the key to breaking the Evil Queen’s curse—at least, according to crazy hobgoblin Rumplestiltskin (played by Robert Carlyle from “Stargate Universe”), who’s now the town’s banker. Seems Emma was sent out into the real world 27 years ago in order to ... jeez, I’m running out of room.
Suffice to say that “Once Upon a Time” has an unnecessarily complicated setup. It’s like “Twin Peaks,” “Lost” and Bill Willingham’s Eisner Award-winning comic book “Fables” had a production meeting. Thanks to the Disney connection, we get fairy tale characters that are instantly familiar (Snow White surrounded by bluebirds, the Seven Dwarves with their distinct trademarked personalities, Jiminy Cricket). But add some silly dialogue, appearances by the likes of the Magic Mirror and the Blue Fairy and a fair amount of overacting (Carlyle wins this category hands down), and “Once Upon a Time” gets mighty implausible mighty quickly. Fairy tales are a potentially interesting world to play in, and “Once Upon a Time” could be fun once it figures out what it’s actually about. But for now, it reads like the disjointed, drunken dream of someone who passed out on a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.