Emma Swan does not belong in Storybrooke.
Her look is all wrong. She wears red, deep and rich leather. Her hair falls carelessly across her shoulders. She wears a tank top. No one in Storybrooke even has a tank top. Storybrooke, Maine, has the visual style of a seaside small town. Its people are pleasant and content. Its colors are subdued in blue, green and gray. That is not Emma Swan In the city, where she is supposed to be, she would not look the least bit out of place. But this is Storybrooke. Nothing is at it should be.
ABC took this risk before, once upon a time. In 2004 it put a show on the air unlike any viewers had seen in some years, maybe ever. Perhaps because of their proven storytelling as writers on that show, the network gave Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz the green light for a project they conceived together before joining Lost midway through its first season. For Once Upon a Time to prove itself a success, they will have to have some creative magic left in their tank.
We meet Emma doing her job as a bailbondsman, er, person. She finds people. On her 28th birthday, she is found by the son she gave up for adoption 10 years prior. Henry is one of those children Hollywood always seems to find who is sufficiently smart. He convinces Emma to bring him back to Storybrooke, where he is the adopted child of a single mother, the mayor. With dark hair and grayscale fashion, Regina Mills is the epitome of an ice queen. She’s been the mayor of Storybrooke for as long as anyone can remember, and that’s exactly how she wants it to stay.
Henry wishes otherwise. We don’t yet know exactly why or how, but Henry believes his birth mother is the child of Snow White and Prince Charming, escaped from the fairy tale at birth right before the Evil Queen’s dark curse brought ruin. He brings her to Storybrooke on her 28th birthday, the time it was foreseen when she would return to break the evil curse. Emma sees enough to want to stick around, much to the delight of Henry and the despair of Regina.
Lost’s finger prints are all over Once Upon a Time. Like Lost, Time’s story bounces between to worlds — one the placid Storybrooke and the other a fairy tale. Although, Storybrooke is more like the flash sideways in that its inhabitants don’t know that their lives are not at all what they seem. Just like the escapees from the island, they are waiting to see, even if they don’t know it yet. The black smoke the Evil Queen conjures for her curse needs no explanation. And in probably the most blatant homage yet, Emma wakes up in jail after a car wreck in a way we saw someone on the island awaken and, ultimately, go back to sleep.
Kistis and Horowitz pledge Once will be a show steeped in character rather than mythology, and that’s good. Being based on one of culture’s most famous fairy tales gives the show all the mythology it needs. If it is going to keep viewers it will need the hooks that compelling characters provide.
Once Upon a Time is a daunting challenge. A fairy tale told to a prime time television audience? In 2011? Amidst the sprawling family of crime tech from CBS and more mature offerings of FX and premium cable channels? Once has to convince viewers to suspend their perception of what is and can be real so the show can have unfettered access to their imaginations, where it must and can only survive.
I will grant it because I like fantasy stories with unbelievable fictions, and my imagination is free to anyone who knows where to find it. Once Upon a Time has shown through two episodes to feature charming acting, intriguing curiosities and something else. Something not found in the gritty alleyways of dark and mysterious dramas. Something…Storybrooke.