TV Done Right: Once Upon a Time

24 10 2011

I gotta admit, I was skeptical that fairy tales wouldn’t look totally cheesy on network television. However, if Game of Thrones is any indication of what’s possible when you add sword fighting to TV, I was curious where ONCE UPON A TIME would land in that spectrum.

And frankly, I was very impressed with the ONCE pilot. There’s a lot of great elements for all of us to take note of.

CHARACTER: The Cold Open perfectly lays out Emma Swan, a character that doesn’t know anything about family, only to be confronted with her long lost son. We know somehow it ties into this fairy tale world. Great, we’re in for the ride. And wasn’t that Cold Open a great example of how to hook an audience in 10 minutes or less? That’s what I’m talking about when I preach about making Cold Opens count.

In terms of CHARACTER: The rest of the episode does a great job keeping Emma’s character clearly defined (hardened by life/job, guilty about giving up son), but also giving us a glimmer of where she might evolve to. Despite her guilt for putting Henry up for adoption, she uses her lie detector skills on Henry’s mom/Evil Witch and decides to stick around for the week.

It’s really simple, but so clean, and so well done. When I push writers to give their Main Characters some trajectory, this is what I’m talking about. I don’t need to know EVERYTHING about Emma’s life, but I get a sense of who she is, and where she WAS going, UNTIL this story happened and now we see that she’s along for the ride. Which, in turn, takes your audience along for the ride.

STORY: They did a great job working between the fairy tale world and the modern world, and using the fairy tale book to tie things together. Great transitional device. (Notice, Voice Over not necessary.)

Also, note how smart it was to cut between the fairy tale world and the curse taking hold, to the present world where the curse has already been in effect. It saves the script from becoming a premise pilot where this played out more linearly. The curse takes over in Act Three, which is a great place to build the climax of the episode. And it means much more to us now that we’ve gotten a better sense of what’s at stake rather than if the COLD OPEN was the curse coming over the fairy tale land.

By the end of the episode, we have seen all the players we’ve got to remember, and we’re in for what comes next. Emma being in Storybrook has caused a change and we’ll tune in next week to see how that all unfolds. Again, it’s not terribly specific, like, next week we’ll see her face off with the evil dragon, but we know something fun will come and we hope the curse on this town will be lifted week by week.

Also, in the world of CHARACTER, the super smart thing with Rob Carlyle as Mr. Gold is that he predicts the future. So we know at some point that Emma Swan must have a battle with the Evil Witch. In a 12 ep order, that will probably happen in episode 11. But, who knows how you end a season on a show like this. Point being, again, the audience has something to look forward to. We want to be there when this happens, which, only brings me back to the show week after. That’s what TV is supposed to do.

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: This show also changes what we might have thought possible on network TV. I’d be curious about their shoot schedule, but my guess is each episode is shot in maybe 8 days. GLEE crams in at least three musical numbers, which previously might have been thought impossible to do in that schedule. ONCE gets in a lot of different sets, special effects shots, fight scenes. Sure, there was more money in the pilot than we’ll see in future episodes probably, but still, I’ll bet that crew is busting ass on this one.

Which only circles back to reminding us how important it is to make this enterprise entertaining. One, ABC was smart to go back to 8 o’clock programming and find something FAMILIES want to see. I always say this, but family material pretty much always plays. TWO BROKE GIRLS, definitely not family material. I would guess parents can only watch so much iCarly before wanting to throw themselves out windows, so this fits perfectly.

Plus, Disney used to show family movies on Sunday nights. Maybe I’m old, but I used to really love that. Nice job of ¬†utilizing their brand.

The attention to detail was really well done. My favorite was Emma staying at “Granny’s Bed and Breakfast”..great touch..but did you notice the key that Granny gave Emma? Such a fairy tale-shaped key. It’s a small prop, but everything was true to the world, which only makes it more fun for the viewer to notice all the little gags and details.
Btw, this is where the show being from LOST Executive Producers really shows. These guys gave the audience credit and knew that if there were pieces to connect, the audience would find them. They don’t talk down to the audience, but somehow subtly engage in a conversation with us. A little, joke within a joke here, a small fairy tale reference there. This is a smart move on their parts. This is how you create fans, not just passive viewers. I’m also a firm believer that if you keep the bar higher, people will rise to it. We want to rise to it; it’s more fun that way.

And overall, the show really hit all the right beats. A story that keeps the audience guessing and wanting to solve, high production value, sword fights, true love, witches, cute quirky kid, and a main character to root for. Can your pilot do all that?

What did you guys think of ONCE UPON A TIME?



2 responses

26 10 2011

The pilot wasn’t my favorite thing ever–maybe it felt a little too simple? Probably because it was only an hour, and with a show like this I think I go in these days expecting a two hour LOST-like pilot and the kind of story that goes with. But I heard it gets better, so I’m in.

17 01 2012

@katis, It got sooo much better. :)
Anwyay Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time are my two favorite shows so I love that you drew the connection between these two. I will say, I don’t know if you’ve read the books but GOT is no fairytale. I think the show started to show that but it’s the third book (and the red wedding) that really drives the point home.
Once Upon a Time is a nice contrast (although I was NOT happy about Graham!). I think the casting was really spot on. Although, Lana Parrilla seemed to be overacting her role as the evil queen in this last episode.
I’m really optimistic and Josh Dallas alone will keep me committed to this show.
Anyway, I started making some jewelry pieces based on the show (you can see them on: This week I’m having a contest for other fans to suggest new pieces based on the show and I’ll make the winning idea and send the winner the finished piece. The details are here,, I wanted to invite a fellow fan to participate!

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