Its always interesting, isn't it, when the collective of minds that push out films and TV all seem to come to a conclusion all at once on what is going to be "in" this year. 2012 seems to be the year of the Fairy Tale - two movies and two TV shows all riffing on the idea of "modernised" fairy stories, the films wanting to recast the idea as "girl power" heroines and the TV shows wanting to just bring a mixed bag of fairy story motifs and characters into the modern world. Out of all of these, I've only seen one: Once Upon a Time. In fairness, none of these films or shows really interested me, and I only watched OUAT for two reasons - first, it was on at a convenient time, and secondly, it looked so much like a Fables rip-off I just had to see if it was true.
Firstly, the rumoured comparisons to Fables turned out to be unfounded; Once Upon a Time quickly finds its own voice and its basic setup - that Fairy Tale characters have been magically dumped into the real world, unaware of their real selves - is a solid enough setup in its own right. Episodes flit between the present, real world town of Storybrooke (geddit?) and flashbacks to the Fairy Tale World, mirroring the current story with the story of the characters other selves. It works pretty well mostly but it should be obvious that it's not Fables you need to worry about drawing comparisons with; it's Lost.
Yes, American Network TV is still obsessed with it's last great zeitgeist-ey hit and is still trying to re-create that formula. So you have a clever, non-linear structure at play, an series of overriding mysteries and a bit of clever nudge-wink at the audience about how which famous character ended up doing what job in Storybrooke. There is destiny, and free will, and magic and True Love. OUAT is nowhere near as fresh and interesting as it's equivalent series of Lost, and sometimes suffers from the comparisons it forces you to make, but of all the shows desperate to recapture it's magic I think it's the closest in getting it right.
So what works? Well, first and foremost it's got a decent cast who manage to play both versions of their characters as the same-but-different. When you're not dealing with heavily serialised shows like the sort of stuff you get over on HBO, its important that just hanging out with the characters is a pleasant experience and that is definately the case here - especially the scenery chewing villains. Secondly, it doesn't hold its central story too far away from the audience, keeps it all moving forward and doles out the occasional answer to keep you interested alongside the week-to-week drama. Finally, it's just kind of goofy fun to watch.
It's not all on the money though - the special effects are pretty good for a TV budget but there is a lot of green-screen in Fairy Tale Kingdom and occasionally a little rickety. The odd plotline just goes nowhere, and a bunch of characters are badly under-utilised. And Emma, it's central character, is possibly a little too oblivious to what is going on, or at least too slow to even start to think something funny may be going that isn't mundanely explicable. But these are the sort of first-season speed bumps you should expect, and given how the season wraps up, then the writers certainly have a lot of room to make changes.
Overall, this is a show that grew on me as it went on. It may not be as bold as it could be, and it may not hit all it's targets, but it's an interesting take on this rash of updated Fairy Tales, and I'm looking forward to it's next season.