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Once Upon a Time: Pilot

Emma: “Just because you believe something, doesn’t make it true.”
Henry: “That’s exactly what makes it true.”

That’s it, kids. All those characters you’ve known ever since before you can even remember? Get ready to know them again. This show, or at least the pilot, has achieved perfect balance between familiarity and freshness. It’s hard to avoid using words like “fantastic” and “magical” to describe it, because, frankly, those would be cheesy puns. But dealing with fairy tales demands cheesiness, don’t you think?

The center of everything is Emma Swan, played by Jennifer Morrison, who plays a part usually assigned to a man: a loner with a somewhat dangerous job and static life, a hatred for BS and daddy issues who one day discovers they’re a parent. She doesn’t make the mistake of playing it too butch, though, even if wearing high heels doesn’t come natural to her. She’s smart and longs for someone in her life. And it’s her birthday!

Oh, and she’s also Snow White’s and Prince Charming’s daughter, and the only one protected from the curse the Evil Queen has cast. On the parallel plotline, we learn that the “and they lived happily ever after” part was actually “and the Evil Queen stormed their wedding throwing Bond-villainesque threats at all the guests”. The scene doesn’t seem to have disturbed the nuptials, however, because the next we see, Snow White is pregnant with Emma. Either that or the Evil Queen took her sweet time brewing that curse.

On the day of Emma’s birth, the curse arrives, and with the help of an enchanted tree, she’s shielded from it and ends up alone in our world. All the other fairy tale characters are stuck here, too, but together in a town called Storybrooke. Yes, seriously. Not only the ones in Snow White’s story: Geppetto, Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin and others are here as well. But there’s a catch: they don’t remember who they are, except for, maybe, the Evil Queen aka Regina, who apparently cursed everybody in*her* happy ending. I wonder if the other evil characters are in the know.

Comic book fans may recognize some points in common with the truly amazing series Fables, and I’m sure Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, creators of OUaT and former Lost writers, have used it as a source. Still, the direction they’re taking the show makes it different enough to stand on its own. Besides, you can’t talk about originality in a show that is basically comprised of public domain characters, if ever.

For a show that taps into the old “good vs. evil” well, it was more nuanced than that. Up until Emma’s inbuilt lie detector determined Regina didn’t really love Henry, I believed she was just an over-strict parent who only wanted the best for her kid. Maybe he’s part of her plan. I’ll have to see more, but I trust they’ll develop this aspect a little more.

One of the things I liked the most was the cast. The boy who plays Henry, the boy, was really good, Lana Parilla seems to be having evil fun, Jennifer Morrison is doing a much better job than in House, Robert Carlyle is great as always… but my favorite so far is Grumpy/Leroy. That sarcastic smug was hilarious.

Ok, I give up. I have a soft spot for fairy tales because I learned how to read with them. Cheese just adds flavor to the meaty goodness of this episode. It was fantastic and magical. There, I said it.

Bits and Pieces:

- Snow White is, of course, a kindergarten teacher, since this is the only profession Hollywood can think of for pure and thoroughly good women.

- Regina means Queen in Latin. Evil geniuses have to be show-offs, don’t they? Also, Blanchard means “whitish” in French.

- Maybe I'm just not that into her, but I don’t think Ginnifer Goodwin is good-looking enough to be the fairest of them all. The Queen is fairer. Snow might just be the Mirror’s type.

- Speaking of Magic Mirror, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that we’ll see him next week, and it’s played by Giancarlo Esposito, Gus from Breaking Bad. If you watch it, you know the guy is amazing.

- Does Regina know Emma is Snow’s daughter?

- Lost nudge 1: the clock was stopped at 8:15.

- Lost nudge 2: Regina’s house is number 108.

- Lost nudge 3: Jennifer Morrison’s eye opening scene.

- The bit with the blue bird was a great and subtle Disney reference.

- If not for the prophecy, it’d be much smarter to put someone else inside the tree. Someone who knows what happened.

- When the pages were turning, we could see illustrations from The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, so we can expect characters from that story to pop up one day.

- Prince Charming won a battle against two knights while holding a baby, then he lost right after when he had his hands free.

- That last dialog between Emma and Henry was really sweet. And Emma’s story is really sad.


Charming: “What’s 28 years when you have eternal love?”
That’s how a fairy tale thinks.

Regina: “I want Henry to excel in life. I don’t think it makes me evil, do you?”
No, but the rest does.

Regina: “You may have given birth to him, but he is my son.”
I’m with her on that.

Emma: “Lady, I haven’t seen him since I dropped him at your house and… pretty good alibi.”
Great delivery of the line.

We don't usually rate pilots here, but I liked it so much I'll give it a four out of four cheesy puns.


  1. FABLES is my favorite comic book series of all time and out of respect for that series – which ABC was supposed to adapt as a TV series – I have to (as Mother Abigail would say) make a stand and skip this series.

  2. It's a pity, HBR, because it's the best pilot this year so far. But I understand your indignation.

    However, I love fables and wouldn't like it adapted into a series. They would have to butcher it too much. An adaptation of Preacher for HBO, though, would be a thing of beauty.

  3. Loved it. If this show keeps it up it will be one of my favorites. Really great storytelling. Great review, Gus! - Jen

  4. HBR, I want to second that. I haven't read FABLES, but this was really good, far better than I expected.

    Gus, I think you got the good fairy tale show. No way is Grimm going to be this fun.

  5. One can hope, Josie. It's kind of dramatically ironic that I really wanted to pick Grimm, but it would premiere the same day as Chuck, so I chose OUaT.

    And I know you (and Billie, too) are not big comic book fans, but if there's a good series to get started, it's Fables. I highlt recommend it.

  6. I think it's only dramatic irony if the audience knew this would happen to both you and me. :-)

    Unless you mean it's just big-scale irony, like we're wrestling against fate as we choose which premieres to review. One blog's epic struggle against the fall television season. Who will live? Who will die?

  7. I'm not a fantasy fan, but this pilot was captivating and fascinating, and I am wildly impressed. Loved the Lost tributes, too -- they were like little bits of icing on the cake.

  8. Thanks for the review!

    I'm a Fables fan but wanted to check this show out for multiple conflicting reasons, so I did. While I didn't love the pilot, I'm definitely staying on while it develops.

    I agree that Fables on network tv would likely get butchered, so we'd all probably suffer if it existed. (But Bill Willingham's wallet is suffering if he's getting jacked by the network/producers. Not saying he is.)

    Quick note: I swear I saw the smoke monster behind the queen's entourage as they stormed the castle.

    Also: anyone think much of the stuffed tiger that was in the background in Snow White's room in the castle? It just seemed so conspicuous.

  9. Robert Carlyle and Giancarlo Esposite? They really want me to watch it.

    Also surprised by the positive reviews and reactions. Before the season began I was thinking Grimm would win the battle of fairy tales.

  10. Nice review, Gus. I wasn't as blown away by the pilot as you were, but I was intrigued enough to want to come back next week.

  11. I seriously loved this pilot and this series better make it this year!

  12. I think that the Sheriff might be the Big Bad Wolf. Or Bigby, heh. :)

  13. I enjoyed it, especially Jennifer Morrison, and I'll keep watching it for now. However, aside from concerns over how they may have treated Willingham with respect to Fables, I also found myself bothered and distracted by noticing that they're not really using the public domain characters that we've all heard about for generations -- they're using the Disney versions (e.g. Jiminy Cricket; fairy looking like those in Disney's Sleeping Beauty; specific dwarves). Sure, it's ABC so they can. I just don't like the Disney appropriation of common culture, where they've done all they can to make their commercialized versions the ones everyone thinks of, so I don't like that aspect at all.

    I did really like Storybrook, Emma, and the kid. Though using "a strange small town in Maine" just begs for a Steven King version. :-)

  14. Was anyone else screaming "No, Snow, don't tell Rumpelstiltskin the baby's name!!"...and then she did. He had that gleam in his eye when he met Emma in Storybrook, so I think he is in the know.
    Loved it. Great review, Gus.

  15. I had little hope for this, but it was surprisingly good. Very good in fact. So, now we have a little town in Maine, where strange things are going on - sounds like another show I know:)

    I've seen the Grimm pilot, and it was OK-ish. I definitely think that OUAT has more potential.

  16. Grimm has Silas Weir Mitchell in it, though. Which automatically makes it a must watch for me, cause he's awesome.

  17. I didn't love it as much, but that's probably because for me Fables is THE fairy-tale-characters-in-the-real-world story and I can't help but compare. Still, it was pretty good and I will be back for more. I definitely want to see what will Robert Carlyle/Rumpelstiltskin be up to.

  18. Great review, Gus. I think I agree with you; this is one of the best pilots this season. I really want to see the rest of it. At some point, I just wanted it to turn into a movie.

    As for the comparison to Fables, I also did it at the beginning, but I find that the premise is different enough for the series to hold on its own. (Also, in retrospect, it's much closer to what happens in the movie Enchanted than to Fables.)

  19. I was really not convinced by the premise of this series... until I saw this first episode! Loved it! Can't wait to see where they take us!

    Only caveat, I don't really see this going on for seasons and seasons... seems like something which should be wrapped up in a couple of years at the most.

  20. Unfortunately, I'm with HBR on this. While I'm not entirely opposed to giving the show a shot, it'd have to be incredibly good - and I mean Firefly good - to get me over the fact that this should have been Fables. Since I don't see that as a realistic possibility, I'm giving it a miss.

  21. Great review! Are you going to review the whole series, or just the pilot?

    It was a lot better than I expected it was going to be! Certainly engaging enough to keep me tuned another couple of weeks.

    I do think it could use a little bit of self-aware humour, or it could end up being way too cheesy.

    But, it was rather beautiful, so let's keep out fingers crossed for this one.

  22. It's a pity, HBR, because it's the best pilot this year so far. But I understand your indignation.

    Even if it's not a direct rip-off of FABLES, knowing that ABC had inquired about a FABLES TV series is enough to keep me from watching the show.

    Just like I refuse (I utterly refuse*) to read or watch anything Harry Potter, because of Tim Hunter.

    My favorite new show right now is AMERICAN HORROR STORY.

    *THE CREATURE FROM THE PIT and Lady Adrasta

  23. Upon rewatching, the number 8 figured more prominently than any LOST numbers. 28. 8:15, 8:16. House number 108. Car license had an 8 on it.

    I saw the smoke monster too. :) - Jen

  24. Hi, HellBlazerRaiser. I didn't know who Tim Hunter was, so I looked him up. I think you might be overreacting a bit - Harry Potter certainly isn't the most original character, but just because there had been other bespectacled teenage wizards doesn't mean that he's a ripoff. Here's what Neil Gaiman had to say about that, in case you're interested:

    "Back in November I was tracked down by a Scotsman journalist who had noticed the similarities between my Tim Hunter character and Harry Potter, and wanted a story. I disappointed him by explaining that, no, I certainly didn't believe that Rowling had ripped off Books of Magic, that I doubted she'd read it and that it wouldn't matter if she had: I wasn't the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school. It's not the ideas, it's what you do with them that matters."

    As for the aborted Fables TV series: I don't quite understand what you're making a stand about. (That's not supposed to be an attack on you, I really can't see it.) So ABC was about to develop a Fables TV series, then later they decided they didn't like it all that much and dropped it. Then they decided to make a different show; one that also uses the "fairy tale characters in the real world" theme, but otherwise it is set up very differently. I don't see any problem with that. If you refused to watch anything that uses a basic setting which had been used before, I think there wouldn't be much left for you to watch.

  25. Wow, many comments to reply to.

    Josie, I clearly misunderstood what dramatic irony means. Which is sad, because "wrestling against fate as we choose which premieres to review" sounds awesome. Although I tend to view life as someone is writing it. I'm a little Abed in that way.

    huong, thank you for reading. I saw the smoke too, but I just assumed it was the curse as a visual representation, I didn't associate ir with the MIB.

    greg quinnell, I hope not, because THAT would be to rip Fables off.

    Patricia, you're right, but I think there's a reason for that: comics are usually primarily influenced by literature. If you've ever read Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore or Mike Carey, you notice that; whereas TV has been taking inspiration from cinema, specially if it's for the general public. At least that's what I think. Anyway, on the first lines they say they're the fairy tales "you think you know", so I'm hoping they'll show more than what Disney shows. Oh, and Maine is very King, indeed!

    Sooze, I agree she was stupid, but if she didn't keep her word she wouldn't be pure.

    Google Girl, I've never seen Enchanted, but they say it's charming.

    Bea, I'll probably review the next episodes too. I loved the pilot, but then again I loved the pilot for Flash Forward and Persons Unknown too.

    As for all the comments concerning the Fables adaptation, I don't think ABC gave it up because they didn't like it, but because it's too strong for network TV. Maybe for HBO, or even AMC. And there are too many characters for the general public to follow, too. I'd rather no Fables on TV than a watered down version.

    I'm very happy for the positive reaction to both the show and the review. Thank you.

  26. Well, I liked the review more than I liked the actual episode... It was just OK for me, I wasn't impressed and though I did watch untill the end, I don't think I am a returning customer...

    I guess it's just tooo fairy for my taste. The main minus for me is a lack of suspense. I love my syfy with a huge chunk of mystery and there's none here. I love to be in the dark with the characters and find things out together with them, I don't mind when some of the characters are in a know as long as I'm not, whereas here we the audience knew what happened almost at the beginning of the episode and all the rest are walking blind - so what is the interest for me here as a viewer?

  27. I thought it was lots of fun and that little boy can act! I love the first two episodes and feel like this has a ton of potential.

    - I say that rumpelstilskin is totally in the know and that regina/queenie may have an inkling but she seems to be struggling to remember

    quick question... the boy says that he is NOT pinocchio so who is he? any ideas?

    how crap-tastic to have to be the queens kid... yeesh.. but rumple got the boy for the queen so it must have some great ironic twist since rumple seems to like a good joke..

    anyway lots of fun

  28. As an actual adopted child, the "wah wah I want my REAL mom" shtick always rings false to me. That has never been my experience (although maybe it's because the subject was gently explained to me when I was five) and it just makes me angry, because my adoptive parents are my real parents, thanks very much! I certainly never had to grapple with wondering why I was given up. That, however, is my only quibble with this otherwise fantastic episode. I can't wait to watch more!

  29. Whew! As I was watching the show, I kept flashing to Lost, especially around all the numbers, and thought I was reading way too much into this pilot. Relieved to see that I am not losing my mind.

    I skipped this show last year as I have never been a huge fan of fairy tales, even as a child. So many people, on this site and elsewhere, have raved about it that I thought I would give it a try. I was very pleasantly surprised by this pilot.

    Great acting and I like the premise of the two worlds colliding. Although I am not 100% sold on it, I am definitely intrigued enough to watch a few more.


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