Make-believe is here to stay. And by that I mean the woods and the witches and the magic spells. The trolls, the wizards, the dwarfs. The thundering hooves, the drawbridges, the dungeons, the emptying of wallets in Orlando. All of it now marketed to us with a wry, modern spin. Insert here my hack, quasi-academic theory about the disappointment of our everyday, 21st-century lives and how this causes otherwise sane grown-ups to seek solace in “realms,” from Harry Potter to “Game of Thrones.”
Suffused with as many fairy-tale cliches as it can cram in, ABC’s new drama “Once Upon a Time” may seem like a poisoned apple to us blackhearted cynics.
But happily this series turns out to be the fall TV season’s most charming and elegant surprise. The first episode, premiering Sunday night, is perfectly imagined, written and performed — which is saying something when you consider that the lead character is Snow White. When was the last time anyone over the age of 5 admitted to wanting to know more about Snow White?
Because of its schedule placement or the fact that ABC is owned by the Disney monolith, “Once Upon a Time” could, for some viewers, stir up fond memories of Sunday nights spent with one or another version of “The Wonderful World of Disney” way back when, before it got all gooped up and Hallmarky. For grown-ups, “Once Upon a Time” is clever and forthright about what it’s trying to be, as well as being irresistibly romantic. For older children, it may be just scary and puzzling enough to hold their interest.
Jennifer Morrison (“House, M.D.”) co-stars as Emma, a present-day private investigator in Boston whose passion for hunting down bail jumpers subliminally fills a void: She has no family, no friends, no love life. Why is that?
Well, the audience knows. We’ve just been treated to a thrilling bit of back story and prelude in a parallel storybook realm, where the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) crashes the happily-ever-after wedding of Snow White (“Big Love’s” Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming, a.k.a. James (Josh Dallas), to put her curse on the kingdom. “She poisoned an apple because she thought I was prettier than her,” Snow tells the Prince. “You have no idea what she’s capable of.”
After the birth of Snow and Charming’s daughter, Emma, the queen’s spell descends over the land, a dark cloud that transports everyone — including the Seven Dwarfs, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Rumpelstiltskin and even the Evil Queen herself — to “somewhere horrible,” where happy endings don’t exist and the characters have no memory of who they once were, trapped in humdrum lives.
That horrible place? Maine. A cute little town called Storybrooke, where they have to eat lobster rolls and wear L.L. Bean forever and ever.
A little boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore from “Mad Men”) escapes and runs off to Boston to find his birth mother, which would be baby Emma, who is now an adult. Understandably weirded out — hello, closed adoption? — Emma agrees to drive Henry back to Storybrooke. Along the way, he pulls out his leather-bound collection of fairy tales and tells her that everything in the book is 100 percent true.
In Storybrooke, Henry lives with his adoptive mother — the Evil Queen. His grandmother, Snow White, now named Mary Margaret Blanchard, is his teacher at school, sporting a pixie haircut and teaching the children how to build birdhouses. Despite the friendly chirpers who alight on her shoulder, Mary Margaret has no inkling that she’s Snow White and belongs in a castle with Prince Charming in another dimension. (The Evil Queen has seen to it that the prince is spending his time in a coma as a “John Doe” patient in the Storybrooke hospital, where Mary Margaret volunteers her spare time.) Part of the fun of “Once Upon a Time” is the clever and playful way it inserts the fairy-tale characters into the present day.
We’ve got some kooky time-warp stuff going on here, which is a good place to break the news to you that “Once Upon a Time” has the telltale fingerprints of a couple of “Lost” writers all over it (Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, “Once Upon a Time’s” creators), as well as a “consulting producer” credit from “Lost” co-deity Damon Lindelof. On the plus side, nobody does flashbacks and flash-forwards like the “Lost” bunch, which is skillfully evident in “Once Upon a Time’s” sense of pace and discovery. On the minus side, things could get quickly tedious for those of who still feel burned by “Lost’s” inertia.
Goodwin gives the part of Snow White/Mary Margaret an almost ethereal sense of energy, and her cast mates seem as determined as she is to be a part of something honest and lovely. Although it’s as dependent as other fantasy shows on the latest slick effects technology, “Once Upon a Time” achieves something rare in our plasticized, commercialized times: It feels homemade and hand-crafted. For now, “Once Upon a Time” has made a believer out of this grumpy troll.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC.