Snow White, nervously awaiting the invading forces of the Evil Queen after marrying Prince Charming, gives birth to a baby girl. Just as the child is born, the Queen’s troops seize the castle, killing everyone in sight, but Prince Charming places newborn Emma in a magical wardrobe fashioned by none other than Mister Geppetto (the woodworker from “Pinocchio”), saving her from both immediate death and a terrible curse.
So begins “Once Upon A Time,” a fantastical drama about two parallel worlds: the fairy-tale world of Snow White and Prince Charming and the modern world of Storybrooke, Maine, where the fairy-tale characters have been cursed to live civilian lives. These two universes unfold in tandem as classical stories are enriched with modern interpretations.
The fairy-tale world follows a plot consisting of interconnected fairy tales. Snow White and Prince Charming cross paths on multiple occasions and fall in love, despite Charming’s arrangement to marry the daughter of King Midas. In each episode, other stories, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” and “Hansel and Gretel,” are introduced. But the show’s central story lies in the modern universe.
In the “real” world, Emma (Jennifer Morrison) moves to Storybrooke to reconcile with her biological son Henry (Jared Gilmore) after he seeks her out, convinced that the citizens of Storybrooke are actually fairy-tale characters in disguise. Henry characterizes his adoptive mother Regina (Lana Parilla) as the Evil Queen, who does whatever she can to ruin his relationship with Emma. Emma is both charming and cynical; she is reluctant to connect with others after being forced to grow up quickly in the modern world. Her troubled past as a foster child—she had a son with an abandoning father, gave the child up for an adoption, and was imprisoned, all before she turned 20—causes her to distrust others. For example, she is hesitant in accepting Henry’s teacher’s offer of room and board, instead spending restless nights in her car. Despite her inability to open up, Emma stays cheerful as she attempts to foster a relationship with son, and they bond over the tale of a cursed fairyland, meeting often at their secret spot, a playground castle on a beach.
Regina-cum-Evil Queen, the mayor of Storybrooke, is a bittersweet, blood-curdling antagonist whose sudden outbursts and boiling rage are both entertaining and frightening. Emma’s attempts at circumventing Regina’s plans to separate her from her son are met with threats and impediments from the Queen. Regina constantly tries to arrest Emma on silly charges, but inadvertently inspires Henry to fight against her corrupt authority, further convincing him of her villainy.
Henry connects the worlds of the fantastic and the mundane through his belief in the curse. His desire for a world that transcends reality, one where fairies and magic exist, resounds deeply with viewers and characters alike, as they hope to deal with the harshness of life through a belief in something extraordinary. Working for the sheriff in Storybrooke, Emma helps the citizens overcome their challenges. For example, she helps Ashley, a modern embodiment of Cinderella, decide to keep her baby and reunite with the father of her child. By abetting the woes of these cursed characters, Emma shows Henry hope that bonds of love and family do in fact exist.
What makes “Once Upon A Time” a thrilling TV show is its ability to mix the most-loved elements of fairy-tales, in both their ancient and Disney reincarnations (with characters like Rumpelstiltskin coming from the classics and others like Maleficent arising from the Disney films), with an emotional story. Shown parallel stories in fantasy and modern realms, viewers begin to understand—and empathize with—the messages of childhood tales. Modern conflicts of separation, corruption, and love, are embodied by both the Storybrooke and fairy-tale characters, and they provide an alternate perception into the meaning of these tales. The show escapes clichés by putting its own spin on a variety of stories, interweaving them elaborately into a larger story-arc. Hansel and Gretel, while portrayed as children searching for their father in a forest in the fantasy land, are manifested as orphaned squatters in Storybrooke. While it is comforting to view abandonment as a premise for an exciting tale about two kids and a witch, the “real-world” story is much more grave. Through Emma’s resolution of such conflicts—she locates the children’s father and convinces him to take them in—the importance of fantasy in helping us to deal with concrete issues is developed as a powerful theme and rousing message.
Synthesizing the awe-inspiring fantasy of fairy tales with the fearful elements of real life, “Once Upon a Time” is a great new show which tells a dynamic story of love and loss in dual worlds. It is both fantastic in its interpretation of parallel tales and innately human in its character development and emotional complexity.
“Once Upon A Time” airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. on ABC.