Once Upon a Time, there was a nice TV show…

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Every autumn, in the mystical kingdom known as PrimeTime, about 40 new shows are given their own version of Once Upon a Time. By the time winter's over and the next spring has arrived, only a handful achieve the kind of Happily Ever After that involves good ratings, a faithful audience following and renewal for a second season and beyond.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2011 (4127 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every autumn, in the mystical kingdom known as PrimeTime, about 40 new shows are given their own version of Once Upon a Time. By the time winter’s over and the next spring has arrived, only a handful achieve the kind of Happily Ever After that involves good ratings, a faithful audience following and renewal for a second season and beyond.

The new ABC series that’s actually titled Once Upon a Time is one of this fall’s new arrivals that actually deserves that fairy-tale ending, but it will have to travel a long and dangerous path, beset with ruthless time-slot competition, nervous, cancellation-crazed network executives and even a copycat show on another network, in order to get there.

As its name suggests, Once Upon a Time (which premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC and 10 p.m. on CTV) is a drama set in the fantastical realm inhabited by charming princes, evil queens, fairy godmothers, mine-toiling dwarves and beautiful, pure-hearted maidens.

ABC From left, James Dornan, Lana Parilla, Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Robert Carlyle, Jared Gilmore and Jennifer Morrison.

Along with the requisite enchanted forests and magical castles, the series also takes place in the more familiar and mundane “real” world in which we mortals reside, which creates an intriguing, parallel-storyline premise and a rather large narrative challenge for the show’s writers.

The background yarn goes something like this: the fairy-tale world is on the verge of achieving ever-after happiness, with Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) having met and wedded her Prince Charming (Josh Dallas); the kingdom is secure, its inhabitants are joyful and everything is goodness and light as the enchanted couple welcomes a new daughter into the family.

Except… the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), always the sort to be jealous of others’ good fortune, is consumed by envy and wrapped in rage. Doing what she does best, she casts a nasty spell on the kingdom, banishing its entire population to a much less enchanted place — our world — where they must live ordinary lives, completely unaware of who they really are.

But … just before the Queen’s spell fully descends, Prince Charming is able to place the infant daughter into a magical tree, which protects her from the curse.

Flash forward and jump across realities to the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where a 28-year-old bail bondswoman named Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is confronted by a young boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore) who claims to be the son she gave up for adoption a decade earlier. He insists that she has to take a closer look at Storybrooke because she’s the only one who can save its people from their mundane real-world fate.

Of course, Emma doesn’t believe Henry at first, but when she returns him to his adoptive mother (Parrilla), who’s also the town’s rather nasty mayor, she gets a strange feeling that there might be something to the boy’s notion that fairy tales are real, she’s the long-lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, and their perhaps-not-by-chance reunion is the key to setting Storybrooke free. So she sticks around and does some snooping, and what she finds convinces her that Henry’s tale might not just be a wild daydream.

Once Upon a Time‘s executive producers, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, spent several years on ABC’s Lost, so they know a thing or two about fantasy, mystery and jumping back and forth through time and space and between realities. They do an excellent job of creating side-by-side stories in which the two sets of characters (each cast member has a dual role to play) move forward toward a possibly-ever-after resolution.

The problem facing Once Upon a Time is that this isn’t the first time the fairy-tale world has been mined for prime-time purposes — the extended NBC mini-series The 10th Kingdom tried it brilliantly a dozen years ago, and nobody watched — and it isn’t even the only show that does it this season — NBC’s Grimm, which premieres next week, tries the same trick.

Once Upon a Time is lovely and heartwarming and entertaining, but it’ll take a certain kind of audience-grabbing magic to turn it into a new-season success. It’s a sad fact that in the land of PrimeTime, the never-afters far outnumber the ever-afters.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

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Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

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