Once upon a time, there was a bail bondsperson, and she was having a bit of a rotten birthday. As she blew out the candle on her birthday cupcake, alone in her dark apartment, she made a wish. Just then, as if by magic, a ten-year-old appeared on her doorstep claiming to be the child she’d given up for adoption at birth. And that is the story of how Emma Swan drove Henry Mills home to find herself in a situation that was really quite weird.
Once Upon A Time is a show of two halves, no matter which way you look at it. For one thing, the story plays out between two very different settings – Storybrooke, Maine, and Fairytale Land. Half of the characters, stories and motifs in the show are familiar and half are nothing you could have dreamt up no matter how much cheese you ate before bed. No less importantly, you’ll want to slap half the characters at any given time, and want to hug the other half – and it won’t always be the half that the Brothers Grimm would expect you to be hugging.
Those particular siblings would certainly recognise the characters of Once, as almost all are lovingly borrowed from Grimm’s Fairytales. They probably wouldn’t, however, understand the fandom’s overwhelming love for the Evil Queen, or expect the way they all fit together – and that’s without touching on the half of the series set in Storybrooke, where all the characters live, with no memory of who they were in Fairytale Land. You’ll find Red Riding Hood working at Granny’s Diner, for example, and Henry is quick to introduce his doctor as Jiminy Cricket.
So, what happened to bring them there? Why, the Evil Queen is behind it, of course. She interrupts the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming and swears that she will take away everything they love, jealous of their happy ending. It soon becomes clear that her method for doing this is to transport them to Storybrooke and trap them there without their memories. Lovers are parted, children separated from their parents, and everything is just a little hazy. When Emma arrives in town, though, all of that is set to change.
I can’t tell you much more about the plot – winding and epic as it is – without spoiling it for you, so let’s take a moment to mention the cast. I can’t think of a single actor or actress in this piece who doesn’t more than pull their weight – and given how incredibly versatile they have to be to convince us that they belong in both Storybrooke and Fairytale Land? That’s quite the achievement. Rival mothers Regina Mills, played by Lana Parilla, and Emma Swan, portrayed by Jennifer Morrison, are certainly worth watching, but excellence can be found throughout – Ginnifer Goodwin does a fantastic job of portraying a character who’s very different in the two worlds, but still recognisable as the series goes on, and Robert Carlyle’s performance has to be seen to be believed.
The production values of the show are extremely high – the fairytale costumes and scenery alone would be enough to make me fall in love with the entire series – and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the storylines. Indeed, with a second season set to follow the massive cliffhanger of the first season finale, thought is still going into the show, and I can’t wait to see where that thought leads.
Although the show gets very dark at times – hearts are crushed both literally and metaphorically, and not all endings are happy – it’s also refreshingly idealistic for a modern TV series. With its themes of magic, heroism and true love, it sticks closely to what we imagine when we think of fairytales without becoming sickly or preachy. There are morals, there are messages, but they’re what you make of them. And with a large, vocal fandom who refuse to condemn even the ‘baddest’ of bad guys without a thorough examination of their actions and motives, there’s plenty of scope to interpret the series any way you want.
If you’re looking for something that started out as – essentially – fanfiction and became an amazing work of art in its own right, forget 50 Shades and get back in touch with the fairytales you loved as a child. You’ve never seen them like this before. But now the question is a familiar one… will they live happily ever after?
I’d give this show a rating of 4 out of 5.
Eleanor Musgrove (blames the Blue Fairy)